Unhappy campers

The White House says the president is with the people on Iraq. The truth: He's alone.

By Tim Grieve
Published January 10, 2007 1:28PM (EST)

The White House is starting to dole out the details from George W. Bush's "new way forward" speech tonight. Appearing on the network morning shows, White House counselor Dan Bartlett said that Bush will announce that he's sending more than 20,000 additional troops to Iraq and that he'll acknowledge that it was a mistake not to have sent more troops there a long time ago.

"A vast majority of the American people are not satisfied with the progress in Iraq," Bartlett said this morning. "President Bush is in their camp."

Well, not exactly. Agreeing that there's a problem -- which Bush now seems to be doing, albeit long after the public reached the same conclusion -- is entirely different from agreeing on a solution. According to the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, 71 percent of the public thinks the war in Iraq is going badly. Bush is with them on that part, it seems. As for the solution? Fifty-four percent of Americans want U.S. troops withdrawn either immediately or by January 2008. Only 12 percent want to see the United States send more troops.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said Tuesday that Bush understands that it's "important to bring the public back to this war and restore public confidence and support for the mission." At the same time, however, he said that the president "will not shape policy according to public opinion." Asked about the message that voters sent in November, Snow snapped back: "Let me ask you a simple question: Do opinions change?" When a reporter agreed that they do, Snow asked: "Do they change on the basis of arguments?" The reporter said she thought that opinions changed on the basis of "results," then listed some of the more disastrous results of the president's strategy in Iraq so far. Snow stumbled through a discourse on Saddam Hussein, liberty and America's destiny before he reached comfortable ground: The outcome of the Iraq war ought to be of "great interest" to "everybody who worried about their kids on Sept. 11th, as you and I did, and who worries about how our families are going to be secure in the future."

That dog stopped hunting around the time of the November elections, and it's going to take a lot to get it out in the field again. Snow said Tuesday that Bush will explain to the American people tonight how the war in Iraq "fits into the broader war on terror" and what the stakes of losing would be. A reporter noted that Bush has given such speeches before -- without much of an effect on public opinion -- and asked whether there would be "something specific now that you will try to do or say or demonstrate that would be more persuasive." Snow said "yes" but didn't elaborate. Maybe he knows something that we don't, or maybe the only new twist is the one the New York Times notes this morning: The speech will be televised from the White House library, "chosen because it will provide a fresh backdrop for a presidential message."

You've got to use what you've got, and Bush doesn't have much left. With his approval ratings stuck in the 30s, the president can't sell his plan simply by vouching for it. With his generals -- or, we should say, his former generals -- having opposed a troop surge, the president can't say that he's simply taking the advice of the commanders on the ground. (Although Bush has claimed repeatedly to be following the lead of the military on Iraq, Snow said Tuesday that basing troop levels on the recommendations of the generals was never a "hard-and-fast rule.") And with so many members of his own party going sideways on him, the president can't dismiss opposition to his plans as the hate-America handiwork of those cut-and-run Democrats. Republicans are conceding that at least 10 of their senators are opposed to Bush's plan. In the House, five Republican representatives have already written a letter to Bush urging him to back away from the surge. And if Tuesday night's lopsided House vote on 9/11 Commission recommendations is any indication -- the House voted 299-128 to adopt a bill the White House doesn't support -- there are a lot more Republicans there who may be willing to buck the president's party line now.

Does that mean they'll vote in favor of a Democratic resolution opposing an escalation of the war? Does that mean that Bush will listen if they do? We don't know the answer to the first of those questions, but we've got a pretty good idea about the second. Remember the way Snow explained it Tuesday: It's important for the president to "bring the public back to this war and restore public confidence and support for the mission." And remember what Snow said Monday: "The president has the ability to exercise his own authority if he thinks Congress has voted the wrong way."

Six years into this presidency, there's only one way to read those words: You're coming to my camp because I'm not coming to yours.

Tim Grieve

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

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George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War Middle East War Room