Bush Trip Emblematic of His Approach to Politics

Times Staff Writer

With his dramatic visit to Baghdad, President Bush has demonstrated again the depth of his commitment to the military mission that could decide his fate in the 2004 election.

In his speech to the troops, and even more emphatically with the symbolism of his presence in a war zone half the world away, Bush underscored his resolve to stay the course against growing violence on the ground in Iraq and growing doubts about the effort at home.

"We will stay until the job is done," Bush said.

The unexpected trip, cloaked in secrecy and received enthusiastically by the troops, drew praise not only from Republicans but aides to several of the Democratic presidential candidates.

Yet the underlying message of Bush's trip seems more likely to harden than rearrange the increasingly polarized lines of domestic debate over the struggle to reconstruct Iraq.

To Bush's supporters, the trip is likely to highlight his traits they like best: determination, forcefulness, empathy and commitment to his causes.

"They will perceive this as a reinforcement of the things they prize about him," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin who has closely followed Bush's political career.

Indeed, some analysts noted that it would be difficult to imagine how Bush could have more vividly displayed his determination than to fly into a war zone on a trip considered so dangerous that the White House said it was prepared to turn back if word leaked out before he arrived.

"What the president did today was show he was willing to put himself in harm's way, like the troops," presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told CNN.

But to Bush's Democratic critics -- and the voters sympathetic to their arguments -- the trip could receive a more mixed response.

On the one hand, even critics of the war praised Bush for making the effort to show support for the troops.

"On this Thanksgiving, all Americans are grateful for our troops who are spending this day far from family and loved ones," said Tricia Enright, communications director for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination has been fueled by his opposition to the war. The visit "was good for the troops, certainly."

On the other hand, some Democrats argued that Bush's demonstration of support for the troops did nothing to resolve the larger questions about America's direction in Iraq.

"It's great for him to do this; you can't criticize the president for spending time with the troops," said Matt Bennett, communications director for retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, another Democratic presidential contender who has criticized the war. "But this isn't a substitute for having a policy for success in Iraq."

Both sides agree that the trip was emblematic of Bush's approach to politics. From his repeated tax cuts to the changes in Medicare that he steered through Congress this month to his attempt to reorient U.S. national security policy around his vision of preemptive defense, Bush has consistently set out large goals -- and then pursued them tenaciously, even at the price of sharply dividing opinion at home and around the world.

When challenged, he usually digs in deeper, and that may be precisely what he intended to convey with his visit Thursday.

"It was very much him making an emphatic statement that he believes in this, that he is going to persist," one GOP strategist close to the White House said. "Instead of backing away when he is criticized, he redoubles his efforts."

From a political perspective, the trip offered a strikingly different picture than the images generated May 1, when Bush landed on the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit to declare the end of major combat operations in Iraq. At that moment, Bush seemed bursting with bravado as he stood before a banner that declared, "Mission Accomplished."

That image has seemed so out of tune with the grueling and deadly struggle in Iraq since then that it has been first used in a commercial not by Republicans, but by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, one of the 2004 Democratic hopefuls.

The pictures from Iraq Thursday showed a much more somber president, portraying the struggle in Iraq for the troops and the nation as closer to the beginning than the end and acknowledging the likelihood of difficult days ahead.

In his words to the troops, Bush certainly seemed to be speaking from the heart, even Democrats said. But they said that his chastened message may represent an implicit acknowledgment from the White House that the pictures of the president strutting across the aircraft carrier were now more a problem than an asset.

"This trip was born of good intentions; I don't doubt it," Bennett said. "But I also think it will provide them an opportunity to replace the swaggering imagery of the flight suit with more responsible imagery."

The trip occurred against a backdrop of growing public anxiety about the mission in Iraq. Amid the steady drumbeat of U.S. casualties, public "sticker shock" at Bush's request for $87 billion to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan and the inability of coalition forces to find conclusive evidence that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, doubts about the war have grown steadily in polls since Bush's aircraft carrier landing.

In a Los Angeles Times Poll released last week, 45% of Americans responding said they approved of the way Bush was handling the situation in Iraq, while 51% disapproved. That was a sharp drop from April, when a Times Poll found more than three-fourths of American respondents expressed approval of Bush's Iraq policy.

Similarly, the share of Americans who said the war was worth fighting fell from 77% in the April poll to 48% now. And the new poll found just 35% said the war was worth the cost in American lives.

Several analysts said Thursday that Bush's visit could temporarily shore up those doubts, but that conditions in Iraq would undoubtedly exert more impact on American opinions over time.

The visit is likely to make a more lasting impression in public attitudes toward Bush.

For his supporters it shows a president of deep beliefs unfazed by criticism or shifts in public opinion. For his critics it may help symbolize a man who refuses to reconsider his course even when events seem to demand it.

Americans may embrace or reject Bush's approach to domestic and world affairs in next year's election, but Thursday's visit was another reminder that they are likely to have no confusion about the direction he intends to take the country.

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