|John Kenneth White , professor, politics, was quoted in a Sept. 13 Copley News Service analysis of President Bush's speech announcing the removal of some U.S. troops from Iraq. See his comments in the story below.|
From: Copley News Service Date: Sept. 13, 2007 Author: George E. Condon Jr. WASHINGTON - Midway through his address to the nation Thursday night, President Bush expressed the hope that his speech would enable the two sides of the debate over the Iraq war "to come together." But it is far more likely that passions over the war will be even more enflamed and the debate will intensify because of what the president said.A few rhetorical nods aside, there was nothing in the speech to soothe the critics of the war and much for them to dislike - particularly the acknowledgement that he wants to build "an enduring relationship" with Iraq that would include substantial numbers of American troops in the country long after Bush leaves office in January 2009. "It was a very sobering speech," said presidential scholar Stephen Hess of George Washington University. "The news is that this is a war that is going on after the George W. Bush presidency is over. ... There was no indication that he was going to draw down in any way that is substantially going to have Americans in a minimalist position by the end of 2008."Certainly, the modest troop shifts the president endorsed are unlikely to do much to quell the war debate in the country or in a Congress that has been demanding cuts far deeper than a return to the troop levels seen last year before the surge.
Even beyond the merits of what he was saying, though, Bush's effort to take control of the debate was particularly difficult. For him the bully pulpit is no longer the powerful megaphone that it was in the earlier years of his presidency. Unfortunately for Bush, the address showed just how much his presidency has been diminished by the strains of an unpopular war and continuing casualties.
All the familiar and awesome trappings were there - the Oval Office with its simple grandeur; the seal of the president with the eagle gripping the arrows and olive branch in its talons; even the ability to command time on national television. But, this time for this president, the power to persuade was missing.
"The bully pulpit is no longer the great asset because at some point people stopped listening to him," said John Kenneth White, professor of politics at the Catholic University.
A president who has now given eight major speeches about a conflict that has lasted longer than World War II had to try to make his case by relying less on his now-familiar arguments than on the popularity of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, a man widely respected.
Not since an embattled Harry Truman flew 7,100 miles to Wake Island to meet the popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur in October 1950 has any American president gone to such lengths to associate himself with one of his generals.
The White House, of course, hopes this relationship has a happier ending than what transpired back then since Truman found himself firing MacArthur only seven months after their meeting, plunging him even deeper in the polls.
John M. Elliott, an expert on the presidency at Kenyon College in Ohio, said Petraeus this week proved to be a real asset to the administration as he weathered repeated and often-hostile grillings in both the House and Senate.
"There is more confidence in the military than in the president and his administration," he said, suggesting Petraeus may be able to reassure enough Americans to give Bush a small respite.
But he said this is limited.
"When you've been following a policy for five years and the public has given a definitive judgment that it has failed, it is very tough to win back the people you've lost."
But Petraeus "provides cover for those who want to continue the policy," said George C. Edwards III, who heads presidential studies at the Bush School at Texas A&M University.
Marveling at how many times Bush cited Petraeus by name in the speech - eight - Hess said, "It reminds me of when Lincoln found his general. He finally found Grant. Now, George Bush has found his general."
And that general may give Bush the boost he needs to keep policy from being changed by a Congress run by anti-war Democrats. With the first battle looming next week on Bush's request for more war spending, the lesson is likely to be that even a diminished presidency is more powerful than a divided Congress.
"The unilateral powers of the presidency are substantial," said Edwards, "and since he's got troops over there it will be difficult for Congress to cut off funds for the troops. The tools the Congress has are limited."
But victory there will not signal a revival of the Bush presidency as much as an inability of Congress to act.
"What we're witnessing is not so much the shrinking of a presidency as the death of a presidency," said White. "Bush is so tied to Iraq that there is no hope of his being able to recover anything like the political standing that he had once with voters."
White has studied presidents with low approval ratings. He said the only ones who recovered were those "who could change the subject." Those who could not - Truman and Korea, Richard Nixon and Watergate, Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, Jimmy Carter and the hostages - did not recover.
Now add Bush and Iraq to the list. "There is only one subject in American politics today and that is Iraq," said White.
There is nothing Bush could have said in Thursday night's speech to change that subject.