White House Stays 'On Message' Amid Opposition

These would seem to be difficult times for George W. Bush's White House, if you ask anyone other than the White House. There are signs of trouble on both foreign and domestic policy fronts, but the White House is as ready as ever with reassuring responses.

Here are a few of the most important matters on which the administration has been standing firmest.

TROUBLE: A wave of insurgent attacks in Iraq, with casualties suffered by the U.S. military and Iraqi citizens. Sweeps and offensives by U.S. and Iraqi forces do not seem to have slowed the pace of these attacks, and nearly six in 10 Americans now tell the Gallup Poll they think it's time to start withdrawing U.S. troops.

RESPONSE: The president talks about great progress being made, while the vice president goes on national TV to describe the insurgency as being in its "last throes."

TROUBLE: The image of the U.S. in the Muslim world continues to suffer from charges that detainees have been abused and the Quran desecrated at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. There are calls for "Gitmo" to be closed, even from such staunch Bush supporters as Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez (a Cuban-born American who served in Mr. Bush's first-term Cabinet).

RESPONSE: Vice President Cheney states flatly that there are no plans to close Gitmo and that as far as he can see it's not a problem. At the National Press Club in Washington this week, he said: "Does this hurt us from the standpoint of international opinion? I, frankly, don't think so. My own personal view of it is that those who are most urgently advocating that we shut down Guantanamo probably don't agree with our policies anyway." (Martinez excepted, apparently).

TROUBLE: Polls show the president is losing ground on his drive to overhaul Social Security and allow for creation of private investment accounts. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that 62 percent disapprove of Mr. Bush's handling of what has been the premier domestic agenda item of his second term. Only 34 percent approve. This after a huge and ongoing blitz by administration officials, including some 40 events featuring the president himself.

RESPONSE: The public does agree with the president that there is a problem, and Mr. Bush has only just begun to make his case.

The administration's reputation for staying "on message" and speaking with one voice has been well established since George W. Bush's first presidential campaign in 2000. But in his second term, this style is attracting attention beyond the circle of news media and other professional observers.

Among the questions to be asked: Is this way of responding to trouble a mark of consistency and of adherence to core beliefs? Is it an unwillingness to recognize the facts and alter course accordingly? Or is it just the tried-and-true PR strategy of riding out the bad news in hopes of better days ahead?

The simple, if less than satisfying, answer to all these questions may be that this is the way the president and his top aides have always operated and they see no reason to change now.

There are plenty of examples. On Election Day 2000, exit polls showed a virtual tie between Mr. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. But Bush strategist Karl Rove answered reporters' questions about what he saw happening with a smile, a thumbs-up sign and the words: "Bush. Big."

In the spring of 2001, the president's party lost control of the U.S. Senate because Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont suddenly became an independent. Jeffords said his move was forced by what he described as the shift to the extreme right by Republicans, led by President Bush. The White House responded that, in essence, it had no idea what the senator was talking about.

Then there was the case for war against Iraq, backed up by dire warnings of weapons of mass destruction possessed by Saddam Hussein. Even with no such weapons found, the president has never backed off from calling Iraq an immediate threat that had to be dealt with right away.

Again and again, when asked to cite a mistake or a move he would have made differently, the president has shrugged and said he could not think of any.

Through most of his presidency, Mr. Bush has been sustained by extraordinarily high poll numbers. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his approval rating rose above 90 and came back to earth only gradually over the next 30 months.

It's one thing to stick to the tried and true and ignore contrary views when your approval is in the stratosphere. It's quite another thing when your approval has fallen into the 40s, as in the case for the president today. Public doubts are not then so quickly set aside.

The same is true with congressional loyalty. So long as the 2004 elections lay ahead, Republican majorities in both chambers stuck together behind their president. Now that the second term is underway, more members are striking out on their own.

The most dramatic examples have come in the House in recent days. Republicans joined Democrats in approving broader use of embryonic stem cells for research and then in disapproving of a controversial aspect of the Patriot Act (empowering the FBI to look into library records and other private records without a warrant). In both cases, the defecting Republicans were defying a veto threat from the White House.

These micro-rebellions, too, bring brave "stay-the-course" statements from the administration. But such statements no longer resound as they have in the past, and a more disturbing set of questions may soon confront the Bush team: Can relentlessly reassuring responses reach a point where they begin to backfire? If the public has a much less upbeat view of things than the White House, when does that disconnect begin to undermine the administration's credibility?

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