To seize back the agenda, Bush grabs the bullhorn

His speeches on Iraq and economy stress successes.

Republicans have greeted the flurry of presidential speechmaking on Iraq and the economy - complete with slogans and campaign-style rhetoric - with a loud "it's about time."

At a congressional retreat last week, after President Bush had delivered the first of four major speeches laying out his plan for Iraq, the message to White House officials was clear: Do more to sell your successes. The next day, Mr. Bush made an unscheduled visit to the Rose Garden to highlight the latest economic news, including job gains, falling gasoline prices, and strong overall growth.

On Wednesday, Bush's second Iraq speech in eight days emphasized gains, admittedly uneven, in economic reform and reconstruction, citing Mosul and Najaf as examples of progress. After fighting to retake control of both cities, the White House asserts, coalition and Iraqi forces have rebuilt homes and schools and restored essential services. Bush packed his speech with statistics about public-works jobs, ongoing projects, and new businesses throughout Iraq.

"Iraqis are beginning to see that a free life will be a better life," Bush said in an address here to the Council on Foreign Relations, touting the resources Iraq can build on - oil, land, and water, and a young, educated workforce. Bush's remaining Iraq speeches, before Iraqis go to the polls on Dec. 15, will focus on political stability and then a wrapup of overall progress and strategy.

But for a president eager to rebound from low job-approval ratings and rebuild his reserves of political capital, the potential for serious gains from a bully-pulpit blitz remains uncertain. Ultimately, analysts say, the approach is necessary, but not necessarily sufficient: Facts on the ground must reinforce the words from the podium.

"Initially, I thought the speeches might even work for him," says John Zogby, an independent pollster. "One, it could possibly get back elements of the Republican base, and two, that the Democrats were in disarray.... But under the best circumstances, I didn't see the president getting back to 50 percent [job approval], and now the Democrats are starting to galvanize around the same themes regarding Iraq, if not immediate withdrawal, then staged withdrawal, enough so that they are where the national consensus is."

But, he adds, the president can't stop working the bully pulpit on Iraq, because otherwise he could get buried by the issue. Ditto with the economy, as top administration officials fanned out this week to point out positive developments to a public that has fixated on the negative, such as looming high winter heating bills and insecurity about jobs.

Indeed, as the White House looks ahead to the second year of its second term, and specifically to next month's State of the Union address, there may be signs that Bush's slide in the polls has stopped, if not turned around. Political analyst Charles Cook notes that the new Time magazine poll, with Bush at 41 percent job approval, is the third major poll in a row above 40 - after a nearly three-week stretch with only one out of 12 polls showing the president above 40.

According to Mr. Zogby's own latest polling, which shows the president at 41 percent approval, Bush has won back some independents and Republicans who had left him for a while.

But there's a risk in giving speech after speech, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political rhetoric and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "At some point," she says, "they become nonnewsworthy and, as a result, the story becomes, why is he giving all these speeches?"

The US public is paying close attention to the war in Iraq, and long ago, a slim majority of Americans decided it was a mistake to go in. Now the public is looking for a sense of direction from the administration - that there actually is a concrete plan and an end point. Thus, the president's decision to launch rhetoric, which can be risky.

"At the point at which people don't think they're hearing something new, and they see someone running around the country, you begin to wonder whether he's governing or not," says Professor Jamieson. "The alternative is, if people see the speeches as compelling, they interpret that as governance. They see the plan as real, they see victory will happen."

So far, she says, it's too soon to tell if Bush's jawboning strategy is having an impact. Job-approval ratings don't really tell the story. Polling is needed to test specifically whether Bush's messages are resonating.

Frank Newport, editor in chief of Gallup, sees it as a positive sign when politicians pay attention to public opinion, as a basis for policy decisions - but not "solely for the purpose of attempting to create support for already decided-upon policies," he writes.

In his speech Wednesday, Bush blamed the media for failing to tout the successes of Iraqi reconstruction.

"This is quiet, steady progress," he said. "It doesn't always make the headlines and the evening news. But it's real and it's important and it is unmistakable to those who see it close up."

Senate Democrats responded to Bush's remarks with a report that they say shows a "reconstruction gap" in Iraq, blaming poor long-term planning by the US. Supporters of a timetable for troop withdrawal dismissed the idea that the US should even be involved in Iraqi nationbuilding.

"The president ... fails to understand the limited role the US military should play in Iraq's long-term political and economic reconstruction efforts," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin in a statement. "Our brave servicemen and women won a resounding victory in the military operation, and their task is largely over."

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