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President’s Strength a Potential Weakness

Times Staff Writer

Beset by rising troubles and falling poll numbers, President Bush moved Sunday to rehabilitate his core political asset: his image as a decisive wartime leader.

Under persistent questioning from host Tim Russert during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Bush repeatedly sought to portray himself as a resolute commander in chief who has made tough decisions to protect Americans in a dangerous world.

“I’m a war president,” he said flatly near the beginning of the 60-minute interview. “I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind.”

With that declaration, Bush signaled two arguments likely to become central to his reelection campaign this year.

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By emphasizing the continuing dangers from terrorism, Bush hopes to raise the bar his eventual Democratic challenger must meet as a potential commander in chief, as well as to justify his own decisions on issues as diverse as the economy and the invasion of Iraq.

And by stressing his willingness to make tough decisions, Bush hopes to highlight the aspect of his personality that polls suggest Americans admire most: his resolve.

Yet some analysts believe that Bush’s strength is turning into a potential weakness for him. With polls showing Americans uneasy over the economy and the mission in Iraq, Bush faces the risk that his unyielding defense of his decisions will strike many Americans less as determination than rigidity.

“What’s happening is he is losing the trust of the public,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek. “That’s what the numbers are telling us. The public likes a pragmatist. If you are an opportunist, they don’t like you; but if you are too rigid about your principles, they don’t like you either.”

Bush’s support has slipped sharply in recent polls amid a spate of bad news -- and a daily battering from the Democratic presidential contenders now dominating the headlines.

But with the interview, which covered a range of topics, from the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden to whether Bush fulfilled his National Guard commitment during the Vietnam War era, the president seemed to be sending a clear signal that he would be waiting for the winner of the Democratic contest with sharp elbows and pointed arguments. The polls now showing Bush trailing several potential Democratic opponents may not reveal the true state of the race until that debate is fully joined.

While Bush kept an even tone throughout Russert’s steady grilling, the president gave no ground on his decision to invade Iraq and on making tax-cutting the core of his economic strategy.

Brushing aside criticism from the Democratic presidential contenders, Bush insisted that the continuing violence in Iraq did not demonstrate resistance to the American presence there. “We are welcome in Iraq,” he said.

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And while David A. Kay, the administration’s hand-picked weapons advisor recently concluded that Iraq did not possess stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons on the eve of the invasion, Bush argued that the weapons could have been destroyed during the war, hidden or transported to another country.

Just as defiantly, Bush said that his tax cuts would soon lead to more rapid job growth. “The economic stimulus plan that I passed, or I asked the Congress to pass ... is making a big difference,” he said.

On issue after issue, Bush offered the same underlying message: He may have ruffled feathers along the way, but against a backdrop of war he has made tough decisions that will ultimately make the country more prosperous and secure.

That approach was clearest in Bush’s extended discussion about the war in Iraq. Somewhat grudgingly, the president acknowledged that he had “expected to find” biological and chemical weapons. But, reviving an argument he often made before the war, he still insisted that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, inaction in Iraq was riskier than action.

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“I made a decision, based upon that intelligence, in the context of the war against terror,” Bush said. “In other words, we were attacked [on Sept. 11], and therefore, every threat had to be reanalyzed, every threat had to be looked at, every potential harm to America had to be judged in the context of this war on terror.”

Even though coalition forces have been unable to find the stockpiles of weapons the administration predicted, Bush said that the invasion was still justified because Hussein “had the ability to make a weapon” and thus “was a danger to America.”

Bush’s arguments drew immediate fire from the Democratic presidential contenders as an effort to retroactively shift the justification for war -- from the existence of weapons of mass destruction to Iraq’s potential to develop them.

“The problem is not just that he is changing his story now,” Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic front-runner, said after Bush’s appearance. “It is that it appears that he was telling the American people stories in 2002.”

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But Bush’s defense of his policies -- especially in Iraq, but also on the economy -- seemed as much about form as content. While trying to convince Americans that he had made the right decisions, he seemed at least as eager to show that he was willing to act decisively, even amid uncertainty.

“His one strength in the four years has been that he led the country through a traumatic experience after the [Sept. 11] terrorist attacks, and I think he is trying to recapture that mantle,” said Democratic strategist David Axelrod, a senior advisor to North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Indeed, White House political strategists have long believed that Bush’s best political asset is respect for his personal qualities. Senior advisors believe, in effect, that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts: that even voters who may disagree with Bush’s priorities, or hold mixed views about his performance, are likely to support him for reelection because they consider him honest and a strong leader with a clear vision for the country.

In the long shadow of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, recent polls have found some cracks even in that assessment: In a Time/CNN survey released Sunday, 44% of Americans described Bush as a leader “you can trust,” while 55% said they had “doubts and reservations” about his leadership. Still, the perception of Bush as a strong leader -- rooted in his response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- remains central to his political support.

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In the last few weeks, Bush has been buffeted by a torrent of bad news -- from the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, to his release of a federal budget with a record deficit exceeding $500 billion, to continued slow growth in the creation of new jobs. (He remains at risk of becoming the first president since Herbert Hoover to oversee a net loss of jobs through a four-year term.)

Those events have sent his approval rating plummeting below 50% in most surveys -- the danger sign for any incumbent -- and propelled Kerry to a lead over him in several surveys measuring early sentiment for the November election.

Yet even amid those difficulties, three separate polls in January found that roughly two-thirds of Americans believed Bush had displayed strong qualities of leadership.

That was the foundation Bush appeared to be hoping to build upon during his “Meet the Press” appearance. In one particularly revealing moment, he portrayed the intense polarization that his decisions have prompted at home and abroad as proof that he’s on the right course.

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“When you do hard things, when you ask hard things of people, it can create tensions,” Bush said. “I’ll tell you though, I’m not going to change, see? I’m not trying to accommodate. I won’t change my philosophy or my point of view.”

After three years of bruising political battles at home and abroad, Bush has probably convinced most people he’s telling the truth when he says that. The question he now faces is whether a majority of Americans believe that “philosophy” and “point of view” represent the right course for the country.

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Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga contributed to this report.

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