The North Carolina coast is Bush country. But when the Republican congressman from the area, Walter Jones, was picking up hardware at the local Lowe's last week he got an earful from constituents worried about the situation in Iraq and when the U.S. would start pulling out. "Everyone of them said we need some kind of goal line. The Vietnam veterans were especially upset," says Jones who does not favor immediate withdrawal from Iraq but has offered a bipartisan resolution in Congressalong with liberals like Ohio Dem Dennis Kucinichcalling on the administration to come up with some kind of road map for pullout. "I don't know who his speechwriters are," Jones says of the President " but we need to better articulate the guidelines of what is victory."
This has been a tough summer for the Bush Administration. While the President tries to relax on his five week Texas vacation, he's had to contend with deteriorating military and political conditions in Iraq, a Woodstock-like peace protest at the edge of his Crawford compound led by Gold Star mom Cindy Sheehan, declining public opinion polls (that are echoed by "even worse" internal polling, says one Bush adviser), high oil prices and a recognition that things are not likely to turn around anytime soon. A senior Bush official attributes the president's collapsing poll numbers to "high gas prices and a lot of anxiety about the war" and acknowledges "that's not likely to change anytime soon." A cruel summer is likely to fade into an autumn of discontent as congressmen like Jones come back to Washington having heard complaints from constituents.
So what's the White House plan? There really isn't much of one. If anything, there's a certain sense of fatalism among Bush staffers, a belief that the difficult moments in Iraq just have to be toughed out and that there is no ready cure at hand other than to make the case to stay the course as he did last week when he addressed National Guard troops in Idaho. As for the president himself, Bush is hyperresolute about the situation in Iraq according to advisers. "One of the things that's real consistent about this President is that he doesn't spook," says Bush's media advisor Mark McKinnon.
When it comes to Iraq, White House officials recognize that there are not a lot of options other than to keep training Iraqi troops and hope that they can assume more of the responsibility for defending their own country. Increasingly though that seems like a pipe dream even to conservatives who have supported the war. Last week no fewer than three conservative columnists expressed disappointment with the president. William Kristol, the neoconservative editor of The Weekly Standard, and a strong proponent of the Iraq war, wrote that it was a "terrible signal" to insurgents as well as allies to draw down forces at all; Tony Blankley, the editorial page editor of conservative The Washington Times, pondered why Bush wasn't asking for more troops, and former Bush speechwriter David Frum said the president was using his bully pulpit "very badly indeed" in making the case for war. Most of the letters that poured in for Frum's article from fellow conservatives were positive.
If Iraq is hard to fix, so are high oil prices. Even backers of the president's energy bill won't fix things anytime soon. One senior Bush official acknowledged that while prices might come down some they would remain stubbornly high and there was not much the White House could do except press for final approval of drilling in the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge"If we can't pass it with $2.75 gas when can we?" the official musesthough of course those holes in the tundra won't produce much while Bush is in office. The White House will try some other moves like cracking down on price gouging and making sure there's enough money for federal assistance for home heating oil for the poor. If that weren't bad enough, White House officials have already received word from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration that this will be an especially cold winter, which is likely to drive prices even higher.
When Bush returns from Crawford his energies will be focused on the John Roberts nomination, one of the few things that seems to be going well. After that comes a litany of foreign policy duties. On the anniversary of September 11 he'll attend a church service and then give a major address the next day about the global war on terror once again making the case for holding fast in Iraq. Later in the month he'll wing to New York for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Oh, and all that talk about Social Security reform? The White House is still going to press it in the fall but nobody's optimistic that what comes out at the end of the legislative process will look like the president's plans for partial privatization. When Congressman Jones heard from his constituents about Social Security it was mostly to say that he shouldn't change it.
Bush remains forever an optimist but that even he recognizes his limits. When he went biking with Lance Armstrong in Crawford earlier this month, the two, at one point, approached a particularly steep and rocky hill. Bush "wouldn't even contemplate going up it," recalls a senior Bush official. For his part, Armstrong cruised up the incline. A White House military aide made it part of the way up but "Lance just buried him" and Bush was in awe of his stamina. The fittest president since Teddy Roosevelt will need more than his share of endurance in the coming weeks.