The president moves on

The public isn't happy about your involvement in the Terri Schiavo case? It must be time to talk about 9/11.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 31, 2005 6:55PM (EST)

Talk about changing the subject.

George W. Bush extended his condolences to the family of Terri Schiavo this morning and said a few words about the "culture of life" and society's obligation "to protect the weak." But before we could even start to think about how much protecting of the weak Bush's administration has really done, the president was on to something else. And what a surprise: It was 9/11.

Without a word of transition, Bush switched instantly from his comments about the "presumption of life" to this: "The most solemn duty of the American president is to protect the American people. Since September the 11th, 2001, we've taken bold and vigorous steps to prevent further attacks and overcome emerging threats."

Translation: "Look at me, I'm your wartime president!"

Bush's approval ratings have hit an all-time low as domestic issues -- Social Security, the economy and the Schiavo case -- have knocked the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq out of the news cycle. Americans may think highly of Bush as a military leader, but poll after poll shows that their priorities are different from his when it comes to other issues. And by substantial margins, Americans disapprove of Bush's decision to involve himself in the Schiavo case. By quickly shifting his comments from Schiavo back to 9/11, Bush plainly hoped to get himself back in better stead with the voting public.

To be fair, he had an excuse. The event at which Bush spoke marked the release of the report from the presidential commission assigned to investigate the intelligence failures that led to the Iraq war. So it was entirely appropriate for Bush to turn from a discussion of Terri Schiavo to a discussion of the commission's conclusion that U.S. intelligence was "dead wrong" in "almost all of its prewar judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."

But Bush didn't talk about that conclusion. Acknowledging only that the commission's report "delivers a sharp critique of the way intelligence has been collected and analyzed against some of the most different intelligence targets, especially Iraq," the president talked instead about the attacks of 9/11 and how to prevent something like them from happening again. "We need to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on the weapons of mass murder they would like to use against our citizens," the president said. He said that the commission's report is important because it will help the intelligence community do a better job "to protect the American people" and help him "transform our intelligence capabilities for the needs of a dangerous new century."

It's not wagging the dog, exactly, but it's certainly the rhetorical equivalent: Forget that whole "rushing back from Crawford and signing emergency legislation in the middle of the night" thing. We're a country at war, and I'm your commander in chief.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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