J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP
President Bush in the East Room of the White House Tuesday night
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 4/13/2004 10:56:27 PM ET 2004-04-14T02:56:27

Six months before facing the voters in the Nov. 2 election, President Bush used his Tuesday night press conference to ask Americans to support his policy in Iraq, seeming confident that if they do, he’ll win a second term.

Both the reporters posing questions to Bush and the president himself seemed to agree that the election will be a referendum on what he is doing in Iraq.

When one reporter asked whether he’d continue his Iraq policy even if it meant losing the election, Bush replied, “I don’t plan on losing my job. I plan on telling the American people that that I’ve got a plan to win the war on terror. And I believe they’ll stay with me. They understand the stakes.”

He added, bluntly, “Nobody likes to see dead people on their television screens…. It’s gut-wrenching.” But he argued that he would “never allow our youngsters to die in vain…. Withdrawing from the battlefield of Iraq would be just that.”

As for Nov. 2, he said, “The American people may decide to change — that’s democracy — but I don’t think so.”

Failure of communication?
At the end of the one-hour press conference, National Public Radio correspondent Don Gonyea asked Bush whether, “with public support for your policies in Iraq falling off the way they have” whether “you feel in any way you have failed as a communicator.”

Gonyea added that in his speeches over the past few months Bush had continued giving an optimistic forecast for Iraq, to which Bush answered, “Pretty somber assessment today, Don.”

Then he added his success as a communicator was “the kind of thing the voters will decide next November. That’s what elections are about. They’ll take a look at me and my opponent and say, ‘Let’s see, which one of them can best win the war on terror? Who best can see to it that Iraq emerges as a free society?’”

One unknown which can only be decided as the campaign goes on is whether voters will in fact be asking those two questions or whether they’ll be focused on: Which presidential candidate can get our troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible?

So far in the campaign, despite heavy TV advertising both by Bush and his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, and his allies, Kerry has not offered a radically different alternative to Bush’s Iraq policy.

Kerry, too, calls for perseverance
In an opinion piece in Tuesday’s Washington Post, Kerry called for more NATO and United Nations involvement in Iraq but used language similar to Bush’s in calling for perseverance in Iraq.

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“The extremists attacking our forces should know they will not succeed in dividing America, or in sapping American resolve, or in forcing the premature withdrawal of U.S. troops,” Kerry wrote. “Our country is committed to help the Iraqis build a stable, peaceful and pluralistic society. No matter who is elected president in November, we will persevere in that mission.”

Bush’s press briefing came at the end of a day in which the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks pressed former FBI chief Louis Freeh for an explanation of why the hijackers could so easily enter the United States.

Commission member Bob Kerrey told Freeh the Sept. 11 hijackers “were soldiers. They were part of an Islamic army called to jihad to come into the United States. Why did we let them into the United States? Why didn’t President Clinton and or President Bush issue an order to change the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) procedures and other orders to the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) etc. to make sure their soldiers couldn’t get into America?”

Once again as he had before in the Sept. 11 commission hearings, Kerrey crystallized the issue in plain language: “Why did we let them in?”

Freeh answered, “We weren’t fighting a real war.” He added, “Had we put the country and its intelligence and law enforcement agencies on a war footing” the federal government could have detained the Sept 11 conspirators before they attacked.

The wrong war?
Now after nearly 3,000 were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks the country is closer to being on a war footing, but Bush’s adversaries such as former White House counterterrorism aide Richard Clarke charge that Bush has chosen the wrong war to fight.

Bush tried to make the case that the two — Iraq and Islamic terrorists elsewhere — are inextricably linked.

“The violence we are seeing in Iraq is familiar,” he said. “The terrorists who take hostages or plants a roadside bomb near Baghdad is serving the same ideology of murder that kills innocent people on trains in Madrid….”

For the moment Kerry is leaving aside the issue of whether Bush could have acted to avert the Sept. 11 attacks, but if eventually he seeks to use pre-Sept 11 preparation as an issue, then he may, as some of his surrogates have done, contend that prior to the attacks Bush lacked a sense of urgency about preventing an al-Qaida attack and he is still too laid back.

“Does bin Laden take vacations?” asked former Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan, who now speaks for the anti-Bush group America Coming Together, in one of his daily memos attacking Bush.

Alluding to the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing (PDB) on bin Laden that was declassified and released last weekend, Jordan gibed, “Where was George Bush when he received the chilling August 6, 2001, PDB? Enjoying a month-long vacation at his ranch, joking with the press about golf.”

That, too, is a judgment the voters will make in November: Which Bush would they be signing up for a second term, the golfing, joking president or the somber war president?

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