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Experts Discuss The President’s Comments on Iraq

March 21, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The president devoted a significant amount of today’s news conference appealing to citizens beyond the confines of the White House briefing room. One reporter told Mr. Bush of his conversation with a voter outside the president’s speech in Cleveland on Monday.

QUESTION: And one woman who said she voted for you said, “You know what? He’s losing me. He’s been there too long. He’s losing me.” What do you say to her?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I say that I’m talking realistically to people. We have a plan for victory, and it’s important we achieve that plan. Democracy — first of all, this is a global war on terror, and Iraq is a part of the war on terror.

GWEN IFILL: The president has also been explaining himself to other Republicans on the way decisions are made in the White House.

QUESTION: Even within your party, they say that maybe you need some changes; would you benefit from any changes to your staff?

GEORGE W. BUSH: … Washington’s a great town for advice. I get a lot of it, sometimes in private from my friends and sometimes in public. There are those who like to stand up and say to the president, “Here’s what you ought to be doing,” and I understand that.

This isn’t the first time during these 5 1/2 years that people have felt comfortable about standing up, telling me what to do, and that’s OK. I take it all in and appreciate the spirit in which it’s delivered, most of the time.

But, no, you know, look, I’m satisfied with the people I’ve surrounded myself with. We’ve been a remarkably stable administration, and I think that’s good for the country.

Obviously, there are some times when government bureaucracies haven’t responded the way we wanted them to. And, like citizens, you know, I don’t like that at all.

I mean, I think, for example, of the trailers sitting down in Arkansas. Like many citizens, I’m wondering why they’re down there, you know? How come we’ve got 11,000?

So I’ve asked Chertoff to find out, “What are you going to do with them? The taxpayers aren’t interested in 11,000 trailers just sitting there. Do something with them.”

And so I share that sense of frustration, when a big government is unable to, you know — it sends wrong signals to taxpayers.

GWEN IFILL: But most of the explanations Mr. Bush offered circled back to the war in Iraq and the shadow it has cast on his presidency.

QUESTION: You’ve said throughout your presidency that you don’t pay that much attention to the polls, that…


GEORGE W. BUSH: Correct.

QUESTION: There was a handful that have come back, and they all say the exact same thing: that a growing number of Americans are questioning the trustworthiness of you and this White House. Does that concern you?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe that my job is to go out and explain to people what’s on my mind. That’s why I’m having this press conference, see? I’m telling you what’s on my mind.

And what’s on my mind is winning the war on terror. And I understand war creates concerns, Jim. Nobody likes war; it creates a sense of uncertainty in the country.

You know, the person you talked to in Cleveland is uncertain about our ability to go forward. She’s uncertain about whether or not we can succeed, and I understand that.

War creates trauma, particularly when you’re fighting an enemy that doesn’t fight, you know, soldier-to-soldier; they fight by using IEDs to kill innocent people. That’s what they use. That’s the tool they use. And it creates a sense of concern amongst our people, and that makes sense, and I know that.

And one of the reasons why it’s important for me to continue to speak out and explain why we have a strategy for victory, why we can succeed. And so I’ve got to continue to speak as clearly as I possibly can about the consequences of success, and the consequences of failure, and why I believe we can succeed.

GWEN IFILL: The news conference lasted just under an hour, as the president used the opportunity to re-stake his claim to leadership.

QUESTION: Just after the 2004 election, you seemed — you claimed a really enviable balance of political capital and a strong mandate. Would you make that claim today, that you still have that?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I’d say I’m spending that capital on the war.

QUESTION: Well, is that costing you elsewhere then?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I don’t think so. I just named a 12 — I just named an agenda that, over the last 12 months, that was — would be, I suspect, if looked at objectively, would say, “Well, they got a lot done.” And I’d be glad to repeat them, if you’d like, which is…



QUESTION: … but Social Security…

GEORGE W. BUSH: Wait a minute. Please, no hand gestures.


Social security, it didn’t get done. But I’m committed to moving the issue; I think it’s important.

And I’m not deterred by the fact that nothing happened. As a matter of fact, I take great pride in the fact that I was willing to bring up the issue while others might not have.

It’s the job of the president. The job of the president is not to worry about the short-term, you know, attitudes. The job of the president is to confront big issues, and to bring them to the front, and to say to people, “Let’s work together to get it solved.” And I’m going to continue working on it.

GWEN IFILL: The president came to the White House briefing room today with little notice but with a lot to say. Did he accomplish what he needed to?

For that, we turn to three people who have watched the presidency from inside and out. Shirley Anne Warshaw is a professor of political science at Gettysburg College and the author of several books on the American presidency.

David Gergen served as an adviser to five presidents. He’s now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and director of its Center for Public Leadership.

And David Frum is a former speechwriter for President Bush. He’s now a contributing editor at The National Review. And he is also with the American Enterprise Institute.

David Frum, I want to start with you, because we heard the president say at the very end that it is his job to think about the long term. Can he do that right now?

DAVID FRUM, Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute: Actually, he’s perfectly positioned, I think, about the long term. He doesn’t have another election to face, and this is the moment to think about it.

And one of the things I think he needs to think about, as he thinks about the long term, is how he reconstitutes his own party. The president’s poll numbers are most worrying to me, because what they indicate is that a lot of people who really ought to be in his camp, his core support, have drifted away.

I don’t think a president at this point in his second term needs to be at 62 percent in the polls, but he needs to be at 44, 45 percent if he’s a Republican president, because otherwise he’s letting many of the faithful drift away.

GWEN IFILL: Shirley Anne Warshaw, Professor Warshaw, when we see the president walk into the briefing room, as he did today, and basically spend an hour defending himself and defending his ability to be president, what is he trying to accomplish? And is that the way to do it?

SHIRLEY ANNE WARSHAW, Professor of Political Science, Gettysburg College: Well, he’s certainly trying to maintain his leadership, keep his political capital.

But let me respond to something that David said a minute ago about the president does not need to be in the 30 percent, needs to be in the 40. Remember, he’s coming up to the 2006 midterm elections. He very much needs to build his political capital, particularly as we move into these elections.

The president needs to keep the Republican Congress, particularly the Republican House, and he can’t afford to have low numbers right now, because that allows members of Congress to challenge him. As you see today, even Iraq, members of the congressional delegation were challenging him.

GWEN IFILL: Is this all about the numbers, David Gergen?

DAVID GERGEN, Professor of Public Service, Harvard: No, I think it’s really about the war in Iraq and his problems with Iran, that I think he’s much more concerned about that than he is about the midterm elections.

The surprise to me has been that, when you talk to people around the president, the model they cite is often that of Harry Truman. Truman was someone whose polls fell down into the 20s in the final year in office. And, indeed, he could not run in 1952 because he was so low because of the Korean War.

And as time went on, historians would look back and said he’s a wonderful president. And if that’s your model, then, you know, you just keep on keeping on, which is what this president is doing.

He’s not changing course; he’s not changing people; he’s not making any serious adjusts. He’s simply coming out, and keep talking, keep talking. “And, ultimately, history will vindicate me.” That’s the theory.

That is not the theory that, say, Reagan pursued. As David Frum will remember, Reagan felt, when he got into a crisis in his second term, he had to rebuild. He went from the high-30s back up into the 60s before he left.

And I think all of us look back and say Reagan chose the right way to do this. He was able to govern more successfully in his last two years.

I think George W. Bush, in choosing the Truman model, is taking an awful risk with his presidency. But more than that, I think it’s a gamble for the country.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about that gamble. The president talked today, David Frum, about being realistic. And he also did that in his speech on Iraq in Cleveland, as well, yesterday. He talked about: I’m going to tell American people that I’m optimistic, but I’m realistic. What is that about? And does it work?

DAVID FRUM: That’s about finding a fine line. One of the things that is remarkable about public opinion on this war is, unlike, say, Vietnam, you do not see widespread, intense opposition to this war. What you see is a lot of pessimism about it.

But people do want it to work; they just aren’t sure it will. So the president has to give them hope.

At the same time, you don’t want to sound like you’re disconnected from bad news. There’s been now a couple of months of bad news from Iraq. There is good news in December, with the last round of elections, but recently it’s been bad, so you want to show that you’re aware of this.

I think he needs though — I think he’s also keeping in mind he’s got a big base of support. The big advantage that any Republican president has is that the people who are really committed to the success of a Republican presidency are a larger proportion of the population than the people who are really committed to the success of a Democratic presidency. If you can hold on to them, and if you can energize them, and excite them, you can do well in the off-year elections.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Warshaw, those of us in Washington spend a lot of time parsing the president’s words, but also looking at this Iraq war as the shadow over his entire presidency. Does it seem that way, as well, a little distance from Washington?

SHIRLEY ANNE WARSHAW: It does. There’s no question that the war in Iraq is really dominating this presidency.

And this president is working very hard, particularly in the second term, to have a domestic agenda, because the American public wants a domestic agenda. He first started with Social Security; that didn’t work.

And what he’s focusing on now — and you saw him talking about it at the beginning of the press conference today — was the economy, doing better. He talked about a 4.8 percent unemployment rate. He’s moving back towards the domestic agenda.

GWEN IFILL: I believe we just lost Professor Warshaw, so I’ll go back to you, David Gergen. Hopefully we’ll get her back before this is over.

Is the president — let’s pick up on her point — is it enough to talk about the good news? Is there enough good news out there that exists? And does he — or does he live in a bubble where none of that pierces, none of the bad news pierces?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, listen, I think, in fairness to the president, we talked only a few weeks ago about the fact that he was in a bubble. Let’s welcome the fact that he’s now out answering questions from the press corps that was pretty tough on him today.

He went into Cleveland yesterday and took questions from an unscripted audience, and I think that’s good. I think it’s healthy for this president. We ought to welcome what he is doing.

But I must say, I have to say I don’t think that he’s — I don’t think people are listening to him in the same way. If there is not a lot of opposition in the streets, as we had in Vietnam, in large part because there’s no draft. This is the first war we’ve never had a draft in, so you don’t get this kind of organized opposition.

But there is alienation from the president and from the war that’s very significant. He does not have the country with him; there’s not a lot of patience for this war anymore; he doesn’t have a reservoir of good will.

And he’s got something else that’s building up on him, and that is the pressure inside the administration from the armed services. The Army does not want to stay in Iraq indefinitely in these kinds of numbers, because it’s putting enormous strains on the Army.

So I think the president is — I don’t think we’re getting the full picture in these press conferences of how the hour of decision is really coming near. We’re not going to be here for the next two years, the next three years like this.

I can guarantee you three years from now we’re going to be in a very different posture, simply because the public won’t permit it. I don’t think the Army will permit it. The hour of decision is approaching very rapidly.

DAVID FRUM: But you began about asking about the long term. If the president were to succumb to those kinds of pressures and were to make a precipitous withdrawal, if the president were to succumb to other short-term pressures, and basically punt the Iran problem, and not take action when diplomacy fails — as it’s already failed, but when it fails again — he is going to face, three years from now, at the Republican presidential party’s next appointment with the voters, the risk of real catastrophe.

If Iraq is not a low-level problem, but a big disaster in the Middle East because the United States has withdrawn precipitously, if Iran has gone nuclear, that will be a terrible day of reckoning. And the long-term calculation is that good policy is political safety, and good policy is aggressive policy.

GWEN IFILL: So if they’re trying to figure a way to get through that, who does the president take advice from?

DAVID FRUM: He needs to take advice from a lot of people. And ultimately, advice is — those are suggestions that he has to — the reason he’s president is because he has a deeper kind of — the people who become president have deep, intuitive understandings of the country in a way that the people who advise the president, who tend to be more sort of linear thinkers, may not have.

But I would suggest that he ought to be listening very hard to people, at this point in his presidency, to people who understand his party, because it is his party that is going to pull him through the next three years.

GWEN IFILL: Not the independents that we’re talking about, David Gergen?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, the independents have certainly drifted away from him. But I must say, I don’t understand this reluctance to change people inside.

You know, Lincoln changed generals on a frequent basis, as we all know. He changed his secretary of war, most administrations.

One of his issues now is to build enough confidence in his leadership to hold the American people with him while he completes this task. And it’s going to take a while. He’s got some big decisions coming up. He’s got some big decisions on Iran. And he needs more public support than he’s got.

I agree with David Frum; he needs to get out of the 30s, not because of midterm purposes. I think he needs to build up support so he can govern, so he can lead, so he can make the tough decisions that are coming.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Warshaw, let me just bring you back into the conversation here. Because one of the…


GWEN IFILL: Well, let me just ask you this really quickly, which is whether the president is speaking clearly enough to do the kinds of things these two gentlemen have been talking about.

SHIRLEY ANNE WARSHAW: He is. And let me follow up really on what David Gergen was just saying, that we really need to see a change in personnel in the White House.

The American public has become very focused on Donald Rumsfeld as the key person in moving a war that is very much of concern to the American people. The American public looks at the White House as group-think right now. It’s the lack of any dissent, the lack of any broad, different views in this war.

And because the war is the overriding issue for this administration, and the American public clearly views the war as of great concern, the president needs to have some change of White House personnel.

And I disagree with some others, that I do think that Donald Rumsfeld is a liability to this administration.

GWEN IFILL: David Frum is sitting here disagreeing with you.

DAVID FRUM: That is not good advice, I have to say, from the president’s point of view. Look, there was — not today — there was a moment in January of 2005 when I agree.

And I wrote an article about the time about it, when he should have tried to not only rotated the staff, but also tried to bring in even some — have a second chance at making the administration bipartisan. January 2005 was…

SHIRLEY ANNE WARSHAW: We’re not talking about a bipartisan administration. We’re talking…


GWEN IFILL: Professor Warshaw, if you don’t mind, if you don’t mind.

DAVID FRUM: But to do it now, to do it now at this one moment would be a big problem. That is a retreat under fire that would, I think, get him 10 minutes of good press, followed by weeks of bad press, weeks of, “A-ha, now you’re confessing the whole thing was a terrible mistake.”

This is not the moment to do that. This is the moment to rally the party. In fact, in some ways, it’s the president’s so-called policy successes that are the problem.

I mean, prescription drug is, I think, as big a problem for this president as Iraq, because what prescription drug is doing — it’s like a lump in the throat of every Republican who wants to support this president through this war and has lost confidence in his domestic policy.

GWEN IFILL: So, David Gergen, does this president still have full control of his bully pulpit?

DAVID GERGEN: No. He can appear at the pulpit as often as he wants, but the bully pulpit has shrunk in its size, in terms of its capacity to persuade.

I mean, usually when, if you don’t have a rhetorical strength in this situation for your leadership, then you begin making some changes in your policy and in your people in order to shake things up enough to say — you get people to come back in, fresh hope.

And it’s just remarkable to me, to go back to the Truman analogy, that he’s just walking a straight line. And we’ve always appreciated the fact that he was resolute. Now he appears stubborn.

You know, “I’m going to walk a straight. I’m not listening. I believe I’m on the right course. I believe history will vindicate me.”

Well, Mr. President, you may believe that. But, you know, you could put all the rest of us in one hell of a mess if your gamble doesn’t pay off.

GWEN IFILL: And, Professor Warshaw, finally to you, on that bully pulpit question, does he still have control of it?

SHIRLEY ANNE WARSHAW: He does not have control of it. And I agree completely with David Gergen that what President Bush should be doing is bringing in some new people, exactly like Ronald Reagan did during Iran-Contra. President Reagan changed his White House staff, brought in Howard Baker, and that was a huge help to his administration.

GWEN IFILL: Shirley Anne Warshaw, David Gergen, David Frum, thank you all very much.

DAVID FRUM: Thank you.