WASHINGTON - From a lectern in Alabama yesterday, President Bush was forced to confront the latest bloody incident in Iraq - the downing Sunday of a military helicopter that killed 16 American soldiers.
Bush expressed sorrow and gratitude for all the U.S. war dead. Then he quickly sounded a different, more positive note: American forces, he declared, are making life better in Iraq.
"They're fixing roads," he said. "They're rebuilding orphanages. They're repairing schools."
Bush's dual message reflected his administration's severe challenge in trying to reverse a downslide in public confidence in the war effort at a time when images of Iraq beamed to Americans are mostly of chaos, violence and death.
The administration's strategy is to respond to bloodshed in Iraq, six months after Bush said major combat was over, by highlighting what it calls the other side of the story: that tangible improvements are being made, that a free and democratic Iraq is moving closer to reality.
"It is important for the American people to get the right picture about what's taking place in Iraq - the full picture," said Suzy DeFrancis, the White House deputy director of communications. She described the attack on the U.S. helicopter - the deadliest incident for American forces since their invasion of Iraq - as "news the American people need to see."
But, she said, it is only "part of the story - and there is another part of the story, which is the progress being made in rebuilding this country."
Some analysts say, however, that if the counterinsurgency in Iraq continues or intensifies, Bush will have to confront the reality - proven in past wars - that Americans typically lose faith in a military campaign as time passes and casualties mount, no matter what they hear from their leaders.
Since May 1, when Bush declared an end to major combat operations, nearly 240 Americans serving in Iraq have died. At the same time, public confidence in the military effort has eroded. In a Washington Post /ABC News poll taken last week, 51 percent of Americans said they disapproved of Bush's handling of Iraq - the first time a majority had expressed a lack of faith in his Iraq policy.
James Burk, a Texas A&M University sociologist who studies war and public opinion, suggested that beyond spotlighting U.S. achievements in Iraq, such as building roads and schools, the president must do more: begin giving Americans a "more forthright" assessment of the dangers and costs, a clearer idea of his benchmarks for success and firmer timetables.
"Bush gave some bold statements of victory in May, and even began taunting remnants [of the fallen regime] to come at us," Burk said. "But since, he hasn't redefined the situation for Americans to fit what is now happening on the ground. And when the events belie the words he is saying, those words can begin to look hollow."
For now, officials say they remain committed to their message "offensive" - a broad and tightly controlled strategy to gain more positive news coverage of Iraq despite reports of escalating violence. The administration embarked on the effort after growing frustrated by the drumbeat of alarming news reports and wary of the perils for Bush and his re-election bid.
At times, the strategy has put officials in awkward positions.
Last week, hours after suicide attacks killed 35 people in Baghdad and left bodies strewn in streets, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hit the airwaves, telling Los Angeles radio listeners that while he was concerned about the bloodshed, he saw a silver lining.
"They tend to be attacking successes," he said, echoing a message Bush delivered the same day. "The terrorists, the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime, clearly are disturbed that progress is being made in that country."
Rumsfeld's interviewer pressed him about how Americans might react to such "positive spin" on the violence. The defense secretary snapped, "I'm not putting positive spin on it."
The campaign endured a setback last week when Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz traveled to Baghdad. He hoped to report back persuasively on progress and improved security - that is, before the downtown hotel where Wolfowitz was staying was attacked with missiles.
Yesterday, Bush did not mention Sunday's helicopter attack specifically. He expressed grief about all the U.S. war dead, before moving on to trumpet what he called the betterment of Iraq and America's stiff resolve.
Similarly, Bush has chosen not to attend memorial services for fallen soldiers - events that would mean television footage of grieving families and flag-wrapped coffins. And the Pentagon has barred journalists from attending the arrivals of caskets at military bases.
Asked why Bush had not mentioned the helicopter downing in his remarks, Scott McClellan, the president's spokesman, said, Bush "did continue to talk about the important cause we are involved in in Iraq," and "there are obviously dangers that continue to exist."
The administration's chief complaint is that a heavy focus by the media on bloodshed has made it difficult for Americans to understand that life in Iraq is getting better. Last month, Bush insisted that "we're making great progress in Iraq - I don't care what you read about."
Asked at a news conference last week whether his administration's efforts to spotlight positive news meant it was not "leveling" with the public, Bush said, "Iraq is a dangerous place - that's leveling."
"There's more than just terrorist attacks that are taking place in Iraq," he added.
But critics complain that the administration distorts reality when it stresses positive news when U.S. soldiers are dying and when the focus, they say, should be on rethinking a flawed strategy. They expressed dismay after Bush, Rumsfeld and others responded to the wave of suicide bombings in Baghdad by asserting that progress by American forces was itself causing desperate Iraqi militants to mount ever-deadlier attacks.
Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader, bluntly warned Bush "to be very careful about remarks and characterizations that minimize losses of this magnitude."
"If this is progress," Daschle added, "I don't know how much more progress we can take."
The message campaign has been meticulously planned, involving the president down to military officials on the ground.
The White House has circulated "talking points" on Capitol Hill. The military has bought upgraded cell phones to help officials in remote areas of Iraq reach reporters quickly. Bush has taken the unusual step of devoting a string of Saturday radio addresses to one theme: that the post-war effort is working. The Pentagon has flown U.S. lawmakers to Iraq and taken them on tours of schools.
The president and top aides have also made themselves unusually available to regional television and radio interviews. They hope to sidestep what Bush has called the "filter" of the larger Washington press corps that covers him every day.
In the past month, officials say, they have succeeded in eliciting more upbeat news reports of schoolchildren returning to class in Iraq and of optimism among Iraqi civilians.
The message strategy emerged nearly a month ago, when Bush gave more authority over Iraq policy to his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
William Benoit, a communications professor at the University of Missouri who has examined how politicians market their message in troubling times, said, "There is nothing wrong with saying there are two sides to every story."
But Benoit said he could seldom recall a White House deploying so broad a strategy in crafting, controlling and spreading a message. "This is a kind of systematic, coordinated effort I don't think I've seen before," he said. "It is a campaign to counter a perception that this war was a failure."
The White House Office of Media Affairs has contacted newspapers, offering interviews with local citizens serving in Iraq who, White House aides say, can attest to positive developments. They say the interviews were set up because U.S. personnel in Iraq were frustrated that more good news wasn't reaching home.
Recently, the White House offered The Sun a phone interview with Sallay Kakay of Silver Spring, an Army intelligence officer serving in the town of Hilla. Kakay was not permitted to discuss military duties - only general observations of life in Iraq.
"You don't hear about how the Iraqi people are reacting to us," she said, "how they want us in their homes, how they're happy we're there."