Message: I Hear

The president tries to prove he gets it.

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George W. Bush

For months, White House officials reacted to bad news in Iraq by scheduling another Bush speech and blaming the media for relentless negativity. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney appear still to prefer this approach. But starting last fall, White House aides realized that the country would not follow a president they thought was clueless. As big and bad a wolf as the media may be, if the president didn’t acknowledge some of what regular Americans saw on their television screens or read in their newspapers, he’d never be able to rebuild support for his administration and the Iraq war. People wouldn’t bother to listen to his plans for fixing the problem, administration aides admitted to themselves, if they thought he didn’t know what it was.

This realization did not unleash any bold acts of confession. Bush has not participated in freewheeling town halls or regular press conferences or a heart-to-heart with Barbara or Oprah. His doses of candor have come in thimblefuls, first in a series of December speeches and more recently in question-and-answer sessions. What Bush says is aimed at believers, Republicans and independents who don’t need to see a firing of Donald Rumsfeld or troop redeployment but who believe the U.S. cannot leave and want to give Bush the benefit of the doubt. If they think the president is giving them the straight story, they’ll regain their faith in his ability to find a solution. All this worked briefly last year. Polls showed an increase in support. But the candor didn’t keep pace with the carnage.

Today the president tried again. He held a press conference in which he tried to show that his perseverance is not blind and that he is not “optimistic for the sake of optimism.” Here’s how he tried to win back support:

He’s hearing bad news from the troops too. In the past, when the administration has refuted news reports from Iraq, the president and his aides have cited reports from military commanders or the field that offer more upbeat assessments. Today, the president did just the opposite. He enlisted the troops in the march to candor. “I understand how tough it is,” he said of Iraq. “Don’t get me wrong. I mean, you make it abundantly clear how tough it is. I hear it from our troops. I read the reports every night.”

Iraqis are not fighting a civil war. It’s easier for the president to show he understands what’s going on in Iraq when he embraces views that Americans already hold. That’s why he talks so often about the violence people see on the television news. He’s trying to explain that he’s not so detached that he can’t recognize basic facts. When he’s on the opposite side of public opinion, people are more apt to think that he’s sugarcoating the facts. That’s the position he found himself in today on the central question of the moment—whether Iraq is in a civil war. Seventy percent of Americans believe it is, as does Ayad Allawi, Iraq’s former prime minister, but the president made the opposite case, arguing that despite chaos and high sectarian tensions, the Iraqi military and religious leadership remains intact. It’s hard for Bush to distance himself from Allawi’s judgment. He was once a key player in a previous White House PR gambit, standing by the president in September 2004 explaining to the skeptical press corps that things weren’t as bad in Iraq as they were reporting.

There will be staff changes. Those who have been calling for a shake-up in the West Wing may be getting what they’ve asked for. “I’m not going to announce it right now,” said the president, suggesting it’s just a matter of time before a veteran is brought in to revitalize the White House staff. He was anxious though, to show he was listening to his critics: “They’ve got some ideas that I like and some I don’t like.” Staff changes aren’t likely to help the White House in a substantive way, but they appear to have become a necessary symbolic gesture to sell the message that the president doesn’t live in a bubble. But if the staffing changes are going to be more than window dressing, Bush officials, including the newcomers, need to admit fundamental problems and explain how the new team isn’t going to repeat the old mistakes. That would be real candor.

Yes, Helen. For the last four years, George Bush has been ducking Helen Thomas at press conferences, worried that any question the veteran reporter might ask would be too biased. Today, he and his aides were banking on it. “You’re going to be sorry,” Thomas said after Bush picked her. He wasn’t. She asked what his real motivation was for going to war, and Bush reiterated his view that the attacks of 9/11 changed his outlook making Saddam an intolerable threat and that the world is safer for his removal from power. The Bush team has recognized what their predecessors did earlier in their terms. Presidents can benefit from direct and even potentially loaded questions. Supporters rally against partisan questioners, and undecided listeners perk up, taking in even familiar talking points a new way.