Bush's Renewed Confidence: Is it Real?
"Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called 'walking.' " That's how President Bush described himself during his acceptance speech at last year's Republican National Convention in New York City.
But for much of this year, the president seemed to have lost that trait that his supporters love and his detractors loathe. He seemed especially off balance in the weeks and months since Hurricane Katrina tore into the Gulf Coast, leaving New Orleans underwater and pleading for help (and sending gasoline prices into the $3-per-gallon range).
Katrina was just one big item on the list of presidential woes in 2005. It's been sharing space at the top of the page with growing public discontent over the war in Iraq and the rising U.S. military casualties there.
Add to that the administration's inept handling of the Harriet Miers nomination to the Supreme Court, and the ongoing investigation into the leaking of undercover CIA employee Valerie Plame's name to the press (which resulted in the indictment of top aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby and lingering questions about Karl Rove's possible involvement).
Bottom line: For quite some time now the president's demeanor could be described as "swagger-less." Part of this may be perceptual. It is hard to exude much confidence when the media keep repeating that your job approval ratings are at their lowest point ever.
But Mr. Bush has often seemed off his game, even to that point that lesser foreign leaders seem to overshadow or upstage him. One example was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who bedeviled the American president on a trip to a summit near Buenos Aires in November.
In recent days, some of Mr. Bush's old confidence seems to be re-emerging. It may be a conscious effort by the White House to project a cooler demeanor -- saluting that old show-biz cliché: "Never let them see you sweat."
The device the administration used to get the president back on his game was a series of speeches about Iraq. In fact, speeches like these were planned for much earlier, but were delayed when Katrina hit.
Each of the four had a theme. Each was designed to respond to the president's critics on the war while communicating to a wary public that there is a strategy in place, that progress is being made, and that despite problems with the reconstruction effort, the mission in Iraq is on path and that it is critical that it succeed. Victory, the President said, is the only option. Any talk of timelines for withdrawal was rejected.
Now, it's far too early to say if these speeches have had the impact the White House hopes for. Recent polls show the public still has serious doubts about the war and that a solid majority of Americans continue to doubt that the president has a plan that will lead to victory.
But the speeches do seem to have achieved one thing. Mr. Bush seems to have regained his presence as a cocksure persona in front of the cameras. That's no doubt something his advisers think the public wants (and needs) to see.
Take the speech in Philadelphia on Dec. 12. It came on a day when Newsweek's fresh cover showed him living in a cartoon bubble. The accompanying story portrayed the president appearing only before friendly, pre-screened audiences. So on this occasion, Mr. Bush spoke to the non-partisan World Affairs Council and, at the end of his prepared remarks, invited questions from the audience.
He took five in all. Two could be regarded as critical of his policies, including one about the number of Iraqi citizen casualties in the war. (He put the count at 30,000.) Another was about the administration's continued practice of linking the Iraq war to 9-11 when there is no evidence of any ties between 9-11 and Saddam Hussein. Mr. Bush didn't directly answer that one, except to say that 9-11 meant that all threats to America had to be taken more seriously (and that Iraq was such a threat).
During this speech and Q&A session the president was relaxed, comfortable -- cracking jokes. He seemed like his old self. In short, the swagger he boasted about at the Republican Convention last year was back.
Certainly that's not enough to solve the many problems the White House is facing. Certainly it's not the answer to the difficulties in Iraq and at home, where New Orleans still awaits proof the government will make good on its post-Katrina promises.
But as he tackles these challenges, nothing will help Mr. Bush so much as an aura of rising public support. And in that pursuit, the president may as well as act as though he expects his public support to return. It surely will not help him to behave as if he doesn't.