WASHINGTON -- President Bush, on the defensive about the war in Iraq as death tolls continue to climb, has launched a major effort to quell public fears about the conflict and quiet calls from Capitol Hill to bring home U.S. troops.
Bush, whose approval ratings have slipped in recent weeks with worries mounting about the war and the economy, will home in on the two issues in the coming weeks, White House officials said yesterday.
The president plans to use public remarks, private meetings and a major speech at the end of the month to show his concern about the conflict in Iraq and his plans for succeeding there.
Bush "recognizes that this is a concern that's on the minds of the American people, and that's why he's going to sharpen his focus," said Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary. The president will be "spending more time talking about the progress that's being made on the ground -- there is significant progress that has been made in a short period of time -- [and] the dangers that remain and that lie ahead, as well as our strategy for victory in Iraq."
The new push by Bush comes amid increasing evidence that the public and their representatives in Congress are skeptical at best toward his top priority -- his plan to remake Social Security -- but deeply concerned about Iraq and pocketbook issues, such as rising gas prices.
The uneasiness has reached a simmer on Capitol Hill, where Democrats are resurrecting their bitter criticisms of Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq and -- more worrisome for the president -- Republicans are joining the chorus of voices demanding to know when U.S. troops are coming home and how Bush plans to extricate them from a bloody insurgency with no apparent end in sight.
Yesterday, a small group of lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation that would set a timetable to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by autumn 2006. And, amplifying debate over a British document known as the "Downing Street Memo," House Democrats yesterday called for an official inquiry to determine whether the president intentionally misled Congress about his reasons for going to war.
A New York Times/CBS poll conducted June 10-15 found that Americans' worries about the war in Iraq, the economy and Social Security have pushed Bush's ratings to one of the lowest points of his presidency, with just 42 percent saying they approve of the way he is handling his job.
Bush, normally a master at driving the national discussion on whatever issues he chooses to highlight, is rethinking his emphasis.
His aides say Bush knows that in order to maintain public support for the war, he must continuously describe his rationale for U.S. involvement there, explain what the future holds and acknowledge the high price the conflict is exacting on American families.
"One of the things we have to do is get out and explain to the American people where we are," a senior administration official said yesterday. "It's incumbent on the administration once again to explain to the American people where we are in this process, what the way forward is, why we think we're making progress, but -- at the same time -- be very clear that this is a difficult situation."
Bush plans to do so tomorrow in his weekly radio address, and in public appearances over the coming weeks, including a major speech on June 28 to mark the one-year anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty from a U.S.-led provisional government to the Iraqis.
A meeting at the White House with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, scheduled for June 24, will give Bush another opportunity to advertise progress he says has been made in Iraq.
The president's public-relations campaign, however, comes late. Weeks of discontent about the continuing violence in Iraq seems to have emboldened lawmakers in both parties to question Bush's policies.
Democrats yesterday staged a hearing to trumpet the Downing Street Memo, which they say proves Bush had long been planning a war with Iraq and invaded under false pretenses. Anti-war activists delivered petitions to the White House late yesterday, bearing 540,000 signatures, demanding that Bush respond to the allegations.
But the larger problem for Bush is the amplifying chorus of Republicans and war supporters who are demanding that he step forward with a clear and specific plan -- including dates and numbers -- for success in Iraq.
A bipartisan team introduced yesterday a resolution calling on Bush to start withdrawing troops from Iraq by Oct. 1, 2006.
"Do we want to be there 20 years, 30 years?" said Rep. Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican who supported the war and authored the resolution. "We need to take a fresh look at where we are and where we're going."
Bush "has to show that he has a clear command of what's going on in Iraq and what it's going to take to disengage our troops, because right now, we have men and women who are losing their lives in Iraq, and it's not clear what our long-term strategy is. We haven't heard him articulate that," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who supported invading Iraq.
Shays isn't backing the Jones resolution, but he said Bush should give Congress "benchmarks" that tell Congress and the public precisely how many Iraqi police, border patrol, military and special forces personnel he believes U.S. forces must train before "we can start playing less of a role, and how long does it take to get there?"
"They must have some estimate somewhere," Shays said. "If they don't, it's pretty scary."
The Times poll found that 37 percent approve of Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq, down from 45 percent in February. Over the same period, the proportion of those saying the U.S. mission in Iraq is going badly jumped 13 percentage points, to 60 percent.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, said "an undercurrent of worry" about Iraq, prodded along by the mounting death tolls and by Jones' resolution, is sweeping Capitol Hill, sparking "serious discussion" about the war and "how similar it seems to the Vietnam process."
"We're gathering a sense of urgency here. I've been to about 10 funerals and I don't want to go to any more," Gilchrest said.
When Bush speaks about the war in the coming weeks, he will present specific plans that are "something different" from what he's told Americans before, Gilchrest said. "It can't be the same old rhetoric," Gilchrest said. "We're not going to buy it."
Bush and his aides reject calls to provide any specific timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, saying it would play into terrorists' hands by encouraging them to time their attacks to the withdrawal. Still, lawmakers say they want some measure of when troops can begin leaving.
Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said Bush could allay fears by shedding "some light on where we are relative to where we should be, and what that means in terms of six months from now, or a year from now or what?
"I think it would be helpful if they could at least provide a framework in which we will begin to see our troops begin coming home," Thune said.