Bush's parallel war for sustained support
Tuesday's budget request, at $75 billion, hints at a long stay in Iraq - and a possible PR battle for the president.
WASHINGTON — The footage couldn't be more vivid: American prisoners of war, nervously answering their Iraqi interrogators. Anguished Iraqi civilians coping with the aftermath of bombing and shelling. A tank rumbling through a sandstorm on its way toward the decisive battle for Baghdad.
While administration officials say President Bush has watched little of the television coverage of the war, Americans are glued to their sets. And therein lies Bush's biggest challenge as a war president: keeping the public with him through the inevitable ups and downs of conflict.
"The danger is that people will treat the war like the Dow - a one-day setback could lead to enormous pessimism, a one-day success could lead to unrealistic optimism," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. "Bush's task is to remind people that war is not a matter of individual days but of an effort over a long period of time."
The president and his team have been doing just that since the war started last week. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reminds reporters that the public isn't really seeing the war; it's seeing "slices of the war."
So far, American support for war remains strong - higher than 70 percent, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. In Britain, where war with Iraq has been far less popular, polls show growing support for Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is likewise warning his people of "difficult days ahead."
Raising expectations for a swift, successful overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime was, in fact, part of the Bush administration's game plan. Bush needed strong public support to gain congressional backing. His tough messages were simultaneously aimed at Baghdad as part of the psychological battle preceding the physical war. Now, the message that matters most to Iraqis is delivered by cruise missiles, though "psyops" continues with leaflets.
Tuesday, Bush formally unveiled his war-budget request to Congress - $75 billion over the next six months, which includes $63 billion for the war itself, $8 billion for international aid and relief, and $4 billion for homeland security. The $63 billion would be enough to keep US forces in Iraq for five months. After that, Washington enters a new fiscal year, and additional money would be budgeted.
The long-awaited war budget is an important signal of the length of the Iraq operation. Administration officials have been saying that the first, most intense phase of combat would last about 30 days - but that US troops would likely be in Iraq for years.
If Saddam Hussein had been ousted from power quickly - the intent of the campaign's initial bombing - the war would have gone faster and cost less. "That would have led to a very different package," a senior administration official told reporters Monday. Now that Washington knows that the Hussein regime is digging in for battle, the financial cost can be better estimated, he said.
Bush, in his remarks at the Pentagon Tuesday, warned Congress in essence not to play politics with his supplemental war request. "Business as usual on Capitol Hill can't go on during this time of war," he said. "And by that I mean the supplemental should not be viewed as an opportunity to add spending that's unrelated, unwise, and unnecessary."
Some congressional observers believe that the $75 billion package won't be big enough, and that Congress will add to it. The Bush administration is sensitive to charges that it isn't concerned about the budget deficit. If the supplemental is approved, this year's deficit will balloon to $400 billion - and so the White House may have underestimated costs for the next six months, analysts say.
State governors have been complaining for months that they need a lot more help from Washington to pay for strengthened homeland security.
To the average American, though, it's "War, the Movie" rather than war as a budget line item that will determine continuing support for the operation in Iraq.
Part of that movie will now begin to include the president in his role as comforter in chief, as he is sure to meet with the families of soldiers who have been killed or captured, and visit the wounded.
"Some might see it cynically, but it's very, very important," says John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "The president has a lot of symbolic things to do to help his cause."
While the president remained largely out of public sight during the first few days of the war, he has now resumed his usual schedule of public appearances. Today, he will visit the US Central Command in Tampa., Fla., and meet with troops. From there, he'll go to the Camp David presidential retreat in rural Maryland for meetings with Prime Minister Blair.
Unlike in the last Gulf War, when Bush's father was rebuked for heading out to Camp David right after hostilities started, the current President Bush has faced no such criticism. He has struck a balance between appearing engaged and involved, but not captured by events - as President Carter seemed to be during the Iranian hostage crisis, analysts say.
"When Bush makes public remarks, he has to remain realistic - but also remind troops that he cares about them," says Professor Pitney. "That's part of the purpose of the visit to Centcom. While he doesn't want to go overboard on public appearances, he also doesn't want to appear to be a prisoner in the White House."