Bush's challenge: a somber optimism

Between a PR blitz and warnings of risk, he fights to keep public trust - like other presidents who've wrestled with dilemmas of war.

As violence in Iraq mounts, along with the cost in lives and dollars, President Bush is facing a growing challenge at home in shoring up support for the occupation.

Despite the White House's recent PR offensive - striving to publicize positive developments in Iraq and blaming the media "filter" for highlighting negative news - polls show that public approval of Mr. Bush's handling of the postwar situation has fallen off. Only a bare majority of Americans now believe the war was worth it, down 24 points from Bush's declaration of the end of combat operations last May.

In many ways, Bush is facing the same balancing act that has tested presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Lyndon Johnson: How to bolster public confidence and optimism in the face of a difficult mission, while still maintaining his credibility - and preparing Americans for the possibility of tougher days ahead. Adding to the challenge is the looming 2004 election, which is already showcasing heated criticism from Democratic challengers and casting Bush's words in an increasingly political context.

Historically, the balance of optimism and realism has eluded more than a few of Bush's predecessors, observers note.

"If you look back over different presidencies, particularly ones that have failed, you find that they go to an extreme," says Joe Lockhart, a former press secretary to President Clinton. At one end of the spectrum, "you have the extreme of the Nixon administration that thought they could create an alternative universe to reality, and during Vietnam just tell people things were going great.... And at the other end is, say, the Carter administration, where he wanted Americans to understand just how hard the problems were. The ones that succeed are the ones that understand that you've got to be in the middle."

The dangers of putting an overly positive spin on events became apparent this week, when Bush asserted that the spate of suicide bombings was evidence of US success on the ground - a statement that led some critics to suggest the gap between official rhetoric and reality was growing reminiscent of Vietnam.

At his news conference the next day, the president seemed to strike a more restrained note, declaring repeatedly that Iraq is a "dangerous" place, and stressing that he was "leveling" with the public.

A fight to keep the public trust

To many, the biggest risk the president faces is losing the public trust. Critics argue that he downplayed costs and risks of the war before the conflict started - and then mismanaged public expectations again when he triumphantly declared the end of combat operations under a banner stating "Mission Accomplished."

By continuing to insist that things are going well, some argue Bush may wind up undermining his image as a straight-shooter - something that has proved a strong political asset for the president so far.

"Credibility is an elusive thing - and when you lose it, it's hard to get it back," notes Mr. Lockhart, adding wryly, "I know a little something about this."

At the same time, other analysts say that while Bush may bolster his credibility by taking a more direct approach and admitting to setbacks, ultimately he's going to be judged less by his rhetoric than by results.

"He'll only get out of this trap if things truly get better," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University.

The importance of a 'personal threat'

Yet even without dramatic improvement in Iraq, supporters note that there are a number of factors that may work to Bush's advantage, making the public unusually willing to tough it out. For one thing, polls taken before the war showed that Americans were prepared for a relatively long conflict and occupation.

More important, Bush has managed to frame the conflict in such a way that many Americans feel a significant stake in the outcome. "Here's where this is different from Vietnam," says Republican pollster David Winston. "There was no sense [in Vietnam] of a personal threat to the US. But with this war, there's very much a sense that the outcome will affect the security and safety of individuals [at home]."

While the administration wasn't as "focused" in its communication with the public over the summer, Mr. Winston says, it has done a far better job in recent weeks. In particular, Bush has redirected the public's attention to the larger war on terrorism, emphasizing that success in Iraq remains a critical battle within it.

Costs, benefits, and a core of support

Certainly, the public's perception of the costs of the war has grown: The number of soldiers killed in combat in the postwar phase now exceeds the number killed during the war itself.

And polls show many Americans disapprove of the $87 billion in military and reconstruction costs. To many, the benefit side of the equation has diminished, too, as no weapons of mass destruction have been found.

"You have a kind of tipping going on," says Steven Kull, a pollster at the Program for International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, with "the cost-benefit analysis moving to the negative side."

Yet there's also a strong core of support that remains quite high among members of the public who like the president - many of whom also continue to believe that Saddam Hussein was connected in some way to Sept. 11, Mr. Kull notes. Indeed, he argues, that misperception alone reflects just how strongly many Americans want to continue to support the war and the president.

"Americans do not like to feel like they were suckered into something - and they will go pretty far" to justify the idea that they were right.'

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