He strode alone into the Rose Garden and complained that "it has now been 57 days" since he asked Congress for more money for the Iraq war and still has not gotten it. For President Bush, the fight over war-spending legislation has become the only talking point -- an opportunity, his strategists hope, to demonstrate strength and turn the tables on a Democratic Congress that may be overreaching.
But as he answered questions yesterday before heading off for an Easter break, Bush was confronted with another narrative, this one about friends and voters losing faith in his leadership. He is not, he said in response to a question, more "isolated from his own party in Congress" than any president of the past half-century, as one conservative columnist wrote. He has not, he said, lost his "gut-level bond with the American public," as the chief strategist of his 2004 campaign wrote.
Instead, Bush presented himself as an unwavering leader trying to avoid the "cauldron of chaos" he believes Iraq would become if Democrats succeed in forcing him to withdraw U.S. troops. He sees the broader threat that others overlook and will do what needs to be done to defend against it, the president said, even though he knows his path is tormenting the country.
"I do fully understand the anguish people go through about this war," Bush said about adviser Matthew Dowd, who has deserted him. "It's not just Matthew. There's a lot of our citizens who are concerned about this war. But I also hope that people will take a sober look at the consequences of failure in Iraq. My main job is to protect the people, and I firmly believe that if we were to leave before the job is done, the enemy would follow us here."
At another point, recalling how he settled on a new strategy to send more troops, Bush allowed that doubts seeped into his own West Wing. "This is precisely the debate we had inside the White House: Can we succeed?" he said. "I know there are some who have basically said it is impossible to succeed. I strongly disagree with those people. I believe not only can we succeed, I know we must succeed."
Having the last word
With Congress already out of town for spring vacation, the president's news conference was an attempt to have the last word in Washington before flying to California and then to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., for a long weekend. He ridiculed lawmakers for leaving without finishing their war-spending legislation, but he opted not to use his power to call them back or to give up his own break.
"Congress shouldn't tell generals how to run the war," he said. "Congress should not shortchange our military. Congress should not use an emergency war-spending measure as a vehicle to put pet spending projects on that have nothing to do with the war."
As Democrats see it, Bush is having a hard time adjusting to life in a two-party government. His vow to veto any spending bill with timetables for a withdrawal, they maintain, betrays a unilateral approach to governing. "He is president of the United States, not king of the United States," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) told reporters in his home state. "He has another branch of government, a legislative branch of government, he has to deal with."
Democratic presidential candidates quickly accused Bush of ignoring the public sentiment expressed in the November elections and in recent opinion polls. "This is vetoing the will of the American people," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) said in Iowa. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) added: "The American people and their Congress have said repeatedly that they will no longer accept a war without end in Iraq."
Both sides, of course, are engaged in what Bush yesterday called a "political dance," but the last step is not clear. Democrats still must reconcile competing versions of their legislation when both houses are back in town on April 16. Bush then plans to veto it, and there are not enough votes for an override, so the process essentially would begin again until someone blinks.
The president tried to make the case that his troop increase is beginning to work, that with two of the five additional Army brigades he has ordered to Baghdad already on the ground, "they're making a difference." And he said delaying the additional funding would force the troops currently in Iraq to stay longer because their replacements would not be ready to deploy. "Congress's failure to fund our troops on the front lines will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines," he said.
Democrats dispute that, but the argument underscored Bush's strategy of calibrating his appeal to a skeptical public. Knowing the war remains deeply unpopular, he is trying to find ways to buy time. And just as President Bill Clinton found himself in 1995 maintaining that he was still relevant after the Republican takeover of Congress, Bush was left to argue that he is not isolated when reporters quizzed him on the topic.
Despite columnist Robert D. Novak's assessment of Bush's estrangement from congressional Republicans, the president said, "You're going to find that the White House and the Hill are going to work in close collaboration," pointing to the GOP solidarity against Democrats' troop-withdrawal legislation. He ignored the deep Republican discontent over Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and other issues.
Perhaps most poignant, though, was the matter of Dowd, who helped Bush get reelected just 2 1/2 years ago. Dowd wrote in Texas Monthly magazine last month that Bush had squandered his chance to reform the government and bring the country together, producing instead "an even more polarized place." He then told the New York Times last week that he has given up on Bush and has concluded that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is right to call for leaving Iraq. Bush, Dowd said, is "not the person I thought."
Bush looked grim but anticipated the question. He said he had not talked with Dowd lately but noted that Dowd's son is in the military and may be sent to Iraq. "He's got a son in the U.S. armed forces, and I can understand Matthew's concerns," the president said. "I would hope that people who share Matthew's point of view would understand my concern about what failure would mean to the security of the United States."
Dowd, contacted later by e-mail, chose not to engage in a debate. He had said his piece. "I don't have anything to add," he wrote. And neither did Bush.
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.