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Bush says his work is unfinished

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- With 2007 shaping up as a pivotal year in Iraq, a somber President Bush said victory is "achievable" but acknowledged yesterday that "difficult choices and additional sacrifices" lie ahead.

A day after saying that America is not winning the war, Bush warned of dire consequences if the United States is run out of Iraq. He declined to preview his new plan for Iraq, but acknowledged the need to recruit more soldiers for a U.S. military strained by global commitments.

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Bush has been forced to bow to new realities at home and abroad that could make next year a turning point in his presidency. Heading into the last two years of his tenure, with Iraq weighing heavily on his agenda and Congress led by a new Democratic majority, he is scrambling to maintain influence.

Bush said he is in the mood to cut deals with Democrats on key issues, while adding that neither side would be willing to compromise principles. Behind his conciliatory tone, though, lay the strains of a president bristling at the notion that he is a lame duck with little left to accomplish.

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"I'm going to work hard. I'm going to sprint to the finish. And we can get a lot done," Bush said at a White House news conference. "Everybody's trying to write the history of this administration even before it's over."

His words reflected the challenge he faces in the coming year, when he will have to alter his approach to find common ground with Democrats while not alienating his party.

"He's got to re-place himself politically," said Charles O. Jones, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin. "His own personal political position - the extent to which [lawmakers] believe they need to pay attention to him - is much lower. ... He's certainly sounding more politically realistic."

Bush is struggling to turn a corner in Iraq and salvage what has become the centerpiece of his legacy. He said he wants to increase the size of the Army and the Marine Corps to ensure that the military can fight the "war on terror" over the "long haul." But he said he hadn't decided whether to order a short-term surge of perhaps 25,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, as some are urging.

"There's got to be a specific mission that can be accomplished with the addition of more troops before ... I agree on that strategy," Bush said.

He sidestepped a question of whether he would be willing to overrule U.S. commanders, whose views Bush has often said drive his decisions on the war. As the president spoke, Robert M. Gates, his new defense secretary, was in Baghdad to assess options.

Gone were Bush's muscular rhetoric and relentlessly upbeat assessments about Iraq, such as his assertion last month that, "Absolutely, we're winning." On Monday, he backed away from that view, telling Washington Post reporters that he agrees with Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose position is that the United States is neither winning nor losing. Bush explained that his previous, more positive statement reflected his belief that "we're going to win."

Yesterday, he struck a markedly different tone that seemed to leave room for the possibility that his goals would not be met. Bush said he was "pretty confident" that his objective of an Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself is feasible.

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Bush said he has never doubted his decisions on Iraq, but they sometimes weigh on him. "The most painful aspect of the presidency is the fact that I know my decisions have caused young men and women to lose their lives."

The war continues to wear on his image, analysts say, overshadowing what might otherwise be viewed as achievements, such as economic growth and the absence of terrorist attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.

Iraq "has raised such serious questions about him as a leader, and that's having a more general depressive effect on the public's view of him," Jones said. "What he desperately needs, and the country desperately needs, is some evidence that this thing is turning in a positive direction."

At the same time, Bush has "raised expectations" about the coming policy change, "and that's not normally what you want to do," said George C. Edwards III, a University of Texas historian.

Bush said he wants public support for whatever course he chooses in Iraq, but suggested that popular views of the war would not dictate his strategy.

Asked whether he would be willing to defy public opinion on Iraq, Bush said: "I am willing to follow a path that leads to victory. ... I want public opinion to support the efforts. I understand that. But I also understand the consequences of failure."

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His remarks came as the Pentagon is preparing to ask for an added $99.7 billion to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, on top of the $70 billion already budgeted for this fiscal year, according to the Associated Press.

Reactions from top Democrats showed few signs of the bipartisanship Bush said he wants.

Bush "still does not understand the need for urgent change in Iraq," Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said in a statement that called for a withdrawal of U.S. troops to begin. "He is grasping for a victory his current policies have put out of reach and leaving our troops stuck policing a civil war."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the incoming House speaker, said Bush has given "no indication" that "he is willing to make the changes needed to reverse the disastrous situation in Iraq."

Rep. Ike Skelton, the Missouri Democrat who is to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told MSNBC that there is no military mission to justify a troop increase in Iraq, an opinion expressed recently by retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, Bush's former secretary of state.

"Putting more troops in - whether it be for six months, nine months - would actually cause you to extend some of the troops that are there and bring some over earlier than they were geared up to be," Skelton said. "I would oppose it."

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Beyond Iraq, Bush said he would work with Democrats on raising the minimum wage by $2.10, to $7.25 an hour, as long as the effort is paired with tax cuts for business, overhaul of immigration laws and expansion of alternatives to Middle East oil.

Bush said he still has a presidential "microphone" that enables him to "focus people's attentions on important issues."

"There's a lot of attitude here that says, 'Well, you lost the Congress; therefore, you're not going to get anything done,'" he said. "Quite the contrary. I have an interest to get things done, and the Democrat leaders have an interest to get something done to show that they're ... worthy of their leadership roles."

Still, with his popularity low and his congressional majority gone, Bush faces a steep challenge.

"Those are two kinds of capital - votes in Congress and support in the country - and he's got neither," Edwards said.

Bush tried to steer clear of talk of his legacy, or how concerns about it might be shaping his closing years in office, telling reporters that he's still reading about George Washington.

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"My attitude is, if they're still analyzing No. 1, 43 ought not to worry about it and just do what he thinks is right and make the tough choices necessary," Bush said.

julie.davis@baltsun.com


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