Explosive violence in Iraq and persistent questions about the administration's handling of terrorist threats before Sept. 11, 2001, have plunged President Bush into one of the most difficult moments of his presidency, as he seeks to maintain public confidence in his leadership while facing what experts say are mostly unattractive options to put U.S. policy on track.
In the face of these challenges, Bush has yielded the stage, remaining largely out of sight at his Texas ranch as others in his administration explain his policies. Bush's silence in the face of mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq and concerns about the administration's timetable for transferring power to the Iraqis has brought criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.
"If it were I in charge over there, I would have him out early next week to explain this whole thing," said a Republican strategist close to the Bush team who demanded anonymity as a condition of speaking freely about the administration. "He should restate what we're doing over there. He needs to provide a bigger picture to give voters more confidence that we know where we're going."
"It is not helping them for the president to be out of the picture," said Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, national security adviser in the Clinton administration. "If they think the American people are not troubled with what they see every day, starting with [the killing of four U.S. contract workers in] Fallujah, and then dead Marines and then the hostages -- if they think that is not roiling the waters, they're sadly mistaken. . . . We have too much at stake in Iraq to lose the American people."
Bush's advisers expect political damage to the president, at least in the short term, given what has happened in Iraq in the past 10 days. "I think the American people know the president is resolved in this matter to complete our work," White House communications director Dan Bartlett said yesterday. "We have nothing to suggest that they don't support him on the war on terror. . . . I think you can expect polls to drop during this very difficult period."
But if administration officials anticipate an erosion in Bush's support, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the president's challenger, may have a difficult time converting that into support for his candidacy. Kerry has criticized Bush repeatedly this week for failing to cede more authority to the United Nations and to develop broader international support, but his own past positions on Iraq make his maneuvering room limited, according to strategists.
Administration officials said Bush will discuss Iraq in his radio address today and will reemerge Sunday, when he goes to nearby Fort Hood to meet with the families of soldiers in Iraq. He will be out in public again on Monday when he appears at a news conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
But as Bush prepares to speak out, the stakes for him are considerably higher than they were only a few weeks ago, despite three hours of testimony by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice before the independent commission investigating the 2001 attacks and assurances by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and military commanders that they are dealing with the uprisings in Iraq.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Bush is "absolutely" losing the public at a quickening pace. He said people are flooding him with pleas "to get us out of there."
"It's a disquieting feeling people have. They think the president does not have a plan, and he doesn't. . . . We are on the verge of losing control of Iraq."
Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) said events in Iraq suggest that Bush and other administration officials should anticipate a new line of questioning of the assessment, at the time of the invasion, that U.S. forces would be greeted as liberators and face only slight resistance. This assumption "clearly is in doubt" considering recent events, he said.
The questions have come most forcefully from Democrats but are shared by Republicans. "In both parties, members are concerned," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) "There's not abject panic, but there's deep concern, and there should be."
Measured through the first snapshots, the verdict for the administration is mixed. Rice's testimony drew positive initial reviews about the administration's handling of terrorist threats before the attacks, based on a poll for Time magazine and CNN and on another for CBS News.
But both polls showed erosion in support for Bush's Iraq policy. Only a third of those surveyed by CBS said the war has been worth the cost, down from 4 in 10 a week earlier. Just 50 percent said going to war was the right decision, the lowest figure since the initial combat ended a year ago, with 46 percent saying the United States should have stayed out. The Time-CNN poll found 44 percent saying they approve of Bush's handling of Iraq, compared with 51 percent in late March.
Bush has made his leadership in the war on terrorism the central message of his reelection campaign, but, between now and the two political conventions this summer, he must navigate through what appears to be a far more treacherous period in Iraq, with threats of continuing resistance and a June 30 handoff of power that remains problematic. He also will have to deal with the fallout over the report of the Sept. 11 commission, which is due in late July.
Administration officials argue that the public has digested Bush's long-standing message that the war on terrorism will go on for years and has accepted that stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq will take a long time. The public, they say, is prepared to see that commitment through to the end. The risk for Bush is that he and other administration officials have not been explicit enough in saying that the rebuilding of Iraq may come at the cost of continued U.S. casualties long after the end of the invasion, and not just of taxpayer dollars.
"We've been very careful about trying to predict too far into the future," Bartlett said. "Despite the violence of the last 10 days, the Iraqi people are better off and their future is brighter than their past. That doesn't mean we don't have an obligation to educate the public about how difficult the task is going forward."
What administration officials must avoid, according to members of both parties, is that a continuation of chaos and resistance in Iraq leads to a reassessment of the direction of U.S. policy in Iraq by the public -- as happened during the Vietnam War. If that happens, it could undermine overall confidence in the president on the issue of terrorism.
"The president is running as the war president, and I would assume that that resonates well and that they have tested those messages," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "But in the end, what the country really wants is a lot of peace and quiet. We're as far away from peace and quiet as possible."
Kerry spoke out several times this week to criticize Bush, but in some ways he has boxed himself in with his previous votes and speeches on Iraq. In October 2002, Kerry voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the war, and later he voted for the first installment of money to carry out the military operation. He has consistently assumed a hawkish position on Saddam Hussein and Iraq, and he concurred with Bush that failure would weaken U.S. standing around the world.
As a result, Kerry is not in a position, nor is he inclined, to advocate a withdrawal of or significant reduction in U.S. troops, which some Democrats, including Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), are urging. Indeed, Kerry has suggested that more troops may be needed -- a more hawkish position than many Democrats are comfortable with -- and he campaigned on a platform of expanding the U.S. military overall by 40,000 troops in the short term to protect the military from spreading itself too thin with the simultaneous operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the same time, Kerry would open himself to criticism by pushing for more U.S. troops and more force because he voted against the recent $87 billion bill that included money for Iraq. Kerry, during the Oct. 17, 2003, Senate debate on the $87 billion package, echoed his earlier support for the mission in Iraq but raised the concerns that are materializing today. "Overeager to rush to war, the administration failed to plan adequately or effectively for peace," he said on the Senate floor. "This administration's brazen go-it-alone policy has placed our soldiers at unnecessary risk and our hopes for success in jeopardy."
Because he initially signaled support for the $87 billion, before voting against it, Kerry left some people confused about his position. He also voted for an alternative bill that would have provided the $87 billion if it was paid for by raising taxes on richer Americans. And a week before the vote, he told CBS: "I don't think any United States senator is going to abandon our troops and recklessly leave Iraq to -- to whatever follows as a result of simply cutting and running."
One theme of Kerry's Iraq policy, stretching from the early prewar Senate debates to today's presidential campaign, is a call for bringing U.S. allies and international organizations into a multilateral operation to stabilize Iraq. No nations are rushing to provide more troops, and several are rethinking their relatively small deployments. Kerry's prescription is essentially twofold: Scrap the date-certain transfer of power and internationalize the effort.
Bush's political advisers have been quick to challenge Kerry to outline his plan for Iraq. One said that even if there are problems in Iraq, Bush will have the upper hand politically. "How do they frame this issue so that if the question is Iraq, the answer is Kerry?" asked one of Bush's top political advisers, who said he could not speak for the record on this subject.
But, for Bush, the more timely question is how he can assure the public that the actions he took in the past and the path he has chosen for the future will bring the success he has promised.
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.