San Diego Union Tribune

April 14, 2004

High-stakes appearance brings mixed reviews

By George E. Condon Jr.

WASHINGTON With increased bloodshed in Iraq, mounting criticism on Capitol Hill and falling poll numbers across the board, it was an embattled president who faced the press and the nation last night.

President Bush hoped to use a tool he normally shuns a formal, prime-time news conference to remind the nation that he is still in charge and to assure skeptics that he has a credible plan to restore order in Iraq.

He succeeded on the first score, projecting steadfast confidence in the rightness of his own policy and stating that he could not think of any missteps regarding Iraq or the war on terrorism.

On the second front, however, the president was less effective. In an admittedly somber assessment, Bush made it clear that more U.S. troops and more money probably will be needed in Iraq and that more casualties are inevitable. But even with the additional resources and sacrifices, he was unclear as to how he hoped to prevail.

"It was a strange performance, I thought," said veteran Washington analyst Stephen Hess, who worked in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. "It was like one of the channels on my old TV set that keeps going in and out of focus. There were moments when I thought he was strong and had a message, and then he would sort of fade out."

Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California and a former Republican aide on Capitol Hill, compared the news conference with Bush's much-ballyhooed May 1 appearance in a flight suit under a triumphant banner on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off San Diego, where he declared the end of major combat in Iraq.

"His remarks tonight were not a declaration of victory. They were an acknowledgment of sacrifice," Pitney said. "If there were a banner of this press conference, it wouldn't be 'Mission Accomplished.' It would be 'The Mission Goes On.' "

The stakes for Bush were unusually high last night, partly because he rarely has agreed to field questions in prime-time, nationally televised settings and partly because of flagging support for his stewardship in Iraq and the war against terrorism.

"There is no doubt that the president has been slipping, and the reason for the press conference was to try to arrest that slippage in the polls," said George Edwards, editor of the Presidential Studies Quarterly and a professor at Texas A&M University. "It is not a matter of life or death, but the stakes were very high."

Edwards said Bush was hurt by the fact that as Americans were hearing reports of increased violence in Iraq and of the rising U.S. military death toll there, the president was vacationing at his ranch in Texas.

"He is supposed to be the decisive guy in charge, and here he was sitting in Crawford. It didn't look very impressive or reassuring," Edwards said. "He was losing credibility and losing approval for his war on terrorism. . . . He needed to go out there and try to shore up his support."

Pitney gave Bush high marks for coming across as a leader.

"He certainly projected a demeanor of command," the professor said. "The question is whether people will find the substance of his remarks satisfying."

But Hess said Bush needs to do more than that.

"He's in charge. He knows that he's in charge and that he's going to stay the course and give the military what the military needs," Hess said. "But the point of this exercise was to reach those who might, as Margaret Thatcher once said, be going wobbly on him."

Because Bush failed to do that, Hess said, the news conference was "not one of his finest hours."

The news conference was Bush's fourth major attempt to rally the country behind his war plans. He gave an interview to Diane Sawyer of ABC in December, delivered his State of the Union address in January and appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" in February.

None of the three previous appearances was considered particularly effective, and recent polls show the president's job-approval rating has fallen below 50 percent. He also is locked in a tight race with presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, with Bush leading in some polls and Kerry ahead in others.

Strangely, there was little focus in the news conference on the recent testimony before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or on the contents of the recently declassified Presidential Daily Briefing from Aug. 6, 2001.

Bush acknowledged that the briefing memo raised the prospect of al-Qaeda hijackings in the United States, but he sidestepped a question about what actions he had ordered after that briefing in an effort to thwart possible hijackings.

Overall, last night's news conference is unlikely to change the minds of die-hard Bush supporters or passionate Bush foes. There also was little new to sway those voters who remain in the middle.