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Bush's Optimism Belies Risks
Analysis: President pleads for public patience on the war and economy.
-- Dan Balz
Upbeat Tone Belies Downside Risks
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2003; Page A01
His poll ratings are down, his administration's credibility on Iraq has been challenged and the economy continues to limp along, but everywhere he looked yesterday, President Bush saw reasons for optimism.
Whatever the issue, whatever the question that came his way in his first formal news conference since the start of the war in Iraq, the president had essentially the same answer: "We're making progress." But threaded through that display of self-confidence was another, more sobering message that his advisers hope Americans will accept: "This is going to take time."
His upbeat appraisal across a wide range of problems belied the challenges that have confronted his administration in the past month and the political toll they have begun to take on his presidency. If confidence alone produced results, there might be less for him to worry about.
For the first time in months, there are glimmers of optimism among Democrats, based on their sense that Bush may be vulnerable in his bid for reelection. The energy with which Bush's political team has been attacking the Democrats as too far left to be trusted to run the country suggests they understand that the longer the problems in Iraq and at home fester, the more likely it is that Bush will face a genuine fight to win a second term.
Bush pointed to the deaths of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's sons last week and to the advances he said have been made in dismantling the al Qaeda terrorist network as evidence of progress, but with U.S. casualties continuing to mount in Iraq, he knows he will need to show more soon or risk losing the public's confidence. The same holds with the economy.
Yesterday's news conference, coming three days before Bush leaves for a month of vacation and political travel from his Texas ranch, was designed to buy him time.
Bush had little new to offer on why bringing stability to postwar Iraq has been so difficult or why his tax cuts have not done more to turn around an economy that has been losing jobs since the beginning of his presidency. Nor did he have new initiatives, policies or proposals. He spoke for nearly an hour in the White House Rose Garden, and for the most part, it was a pep talk designed to tamp down criticism from his opponents.
His most newsworthy statement was to take responsibility for the section of his State of the Union address alleging that Iraq had tried to buy uranium in Africa, which his own intelligence agency said was based on unreliable information. "I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course," he said. "Absolutely."
But he moved from defense to offense with barely a pause. "I also take responsibility for making decisions on war and peace, and I analyzed a thorough body of intelligence -- good, solid, sound intelligence -- that led me to come to the conclusion that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
With that answer, Bush tried to defuse the continuing controversy over his address, but left unanswered why, if that intelligence was as sound as he said, it has been so difficult for U.S. forces to locate weapons of mass destruction or clearer evidence of an ongoing weapons program in Iraq.
Two Democratic rivals challenged Bush on Iraq. Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) questioned why Bush finally accepted responsibility for the State of the Union speech after weeks of pointing to others. "If the president thinks this will end the controversy, he's completely wrong," Graham said in a statement. "It only raises more questions about what kind of cover-up has gone on inside the White House in the last few weeks in order to try to shield the president from facing culpability." Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) charged in a statement that Bush had declared "a premature victory" in Iraq last spring and called on the administration to enlist the support of other nations to help win the peace.
Bush was in a playful, pre-vacation mood, joking with reporters about the hot sun, laughing at his verbal missteps and bantering with his questioners throughout.
Reeling off a list of al Qaeda terrorists rounded up or killed since Sept. 11, 2001, he got tongue-tied trying to pronounce the name of Ramzi Binalshibh. "Sorry, Ramzi, if I got it wrong," he said to laughter in the press corps.
A few minutes later, when asked how, with no primary opponent next year, he could spend the estimated $170 million his campaign hopes to raise, he interrupted the questioner to say with a smile, "Just watch."
But the jocularity came amid questions pointing to the problems Bush is trying to solve, from the conflict in the Middle East to the danger posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons program to Iran's growing nuclear threat to the huge deficits his administration is piling up as it wages war on terrorism and cuts taxes at the same time.
Bush has had one message on the economy since taking office: tax cuts. He said yesterday his economists are "beginning to see hopeful signs of faster growth in the economy, which over time will yield new jobs."
He added that unemployment remains too high and that his administration will not relent until everyone looking for work has a job. His Democratic rivals promise to give him little comfort on that subject. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) said in a statement that, although Bush describes his tax cuts as a jobs policy, "the only thing his plan has done is lose 3 million jobs."
Bush's confident performance will remind Democrats that they face a formidable opponent in the president, but even Bush acknowledged that, in the end, words alone will not get the job done. As he said at one point, "In my line of work, it's always best to produce results."