George W. Bush has always said he wanted to be president so he could undertake bold initiatives, not just hold the title. Now, as he enters the final quarter of his presidency, he stands on the verge of his boldest move since the start of the Iraq war: an escalation of the US troop presence in Iraq, as part of a new strategy for the war.
Convincing the American people and Congress that his plan is worth supporting may be nearly as challenging as achieving some sort of victory in the war itself. But President Bush and his team have taken the plunge, launching a highly orchestrated effort to explain the plan to the public, the press, and a Congress that is talking tougher to the executive branch now that the Democrats control the majority. Bush will address the nation Wednesday at 9 p.m. EST.
With a majority of the public unhappy with the war and support for Bush's handling of Iraq hovering below 30 percent, generating much public enthusiasm for expanded US operations will be tough. Bush's new strategy could also embolden the antiwar movement. But in changing course, he is at least demonstrating to Americans that he too sees the need for change, while holding out hope that the US can achieve something positive in a situation many Americans find hopeless.
Still, in taking this move toward troop increases – combined with more money for reconstruction and required political benchmarks by the Iraqi government – he risks losing the support of people who have stuck with him on Iraq. And so, analysts say, the packaging and presentation do matter.
"Ten percent of Democrats support the president on the war, and 21 percent of independents," says independent pollster John Zogby, citing his own latest numbers. "So it's got to be a good sale, and it's not going to be enough for him to pick up some Republicans that he's lost."
The Bush administration has been building up to a change in Iraq strategy for weeks, but officials say the firm shape of the plan only emerged recently, after extensive conversations with experts and the release of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report last month. The hard sell began in earnest on Monday, when Bush held meetings with more than 30 Republican senators at the White House. After his 25-minute speech on Wednesday night, Bush will travel to Fort Benning, Ga., on Thursday to visit with troops and make a statement to the press.
Also on Thursday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are expected to testify on Capitol Hill and later travel to the Middle East to meet with allies on the new US strategy.
White House officials argue that the vast majority of Americans do not want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, as the polls show, and that therefore there is some openness to a new approach to the war.
"There may be something to that, but it's temporary," says John Mueller, an expert on public opinion and war at Ohio State University. "They tried that at the end of 2005, with all those speeches about victory, but nothing happened."
Now, with the expected plan to send up to 20,000 additional troops to Iraq to quell the violence and allow political and economic reform to take hold, the stakes are higher. And what Bush needs to do, says Mr. Mueller, is demonstrate how sending more troops can break the insurgency and alleviate communal warfare.
The latest wrinkle is the growing split among Democrats over how to approach Bush's plan. Some Democratic leaders are considering ways to block funding for additional troops, a potentially risky move that could open Democrats to charges that they are undermining American men and women in harm's way. Some Democrats have argued that, as commander in chief, Bush has the ultimate power to conduct war, while others, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, was expected to introduce legislation Tuesday that would require approval by Congress for the cost of any troop levels above where the figure stood on Jan. 1.
On Sunday, the new Democratic House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that the White House would no longer have a "blank check" for conducting the Iraq war, though she stressed that Congress was not about to cut funding.
Other Democrats, such as Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a candidate in the 2008 presidential race, have stated that there is no constitutional way for Congress to authorize war but then cut back on funding.
Divisions among Republicans over the war are also becoming increasingly apparent. While some members, such as Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, strongly support boosting troop levels, others remain skeptical. But others, such as Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon and Olympia Snowe of Maine, continue to express reservations.