Morning Cheat Sheet
The President Speaks, But is Anyone Listening?
By Peter Baker
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- The band is playing, the crowd is gathering, the cameras are set up. At any moment, the president of the United States will show up to give a speech on war and peace. And the television guys are debating whether they will even get on the air with the story.
Contrary to popular belief, George W. Bush is still the president and will be for nearly 10 more months, but he no longer commands the stage the way he once did. John McCain's foreign policy address leads the news and the latest crossfire between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton is played out again and again on the evening talk shows. Bush, on the other hand, finds it increasingly difficult to get anyone to pay attention.
So it goes in the eighth year of a presidency that, to judge by polls at least, has pretty well worn out its welcome. Bush is still the commander in chief fighting two wars. He is still working on important issues, such as Middle East peace. Next week, he heads to Europe for a summit that will likely expand NATO further into the Balkans, and then he will visit Russia to try to calm fears of a new Cold War. Yet it often feels as if the energy has been drained from the White House while the venerable old mansion awaits its next tenant.
Some of this, of course, is the fickleness of the media. In today's nonstop, 24-hour cable-Internet-talk show world, the mandate is for fresh, and a president finishing out the last months of his tenure seems anything but. Yet some of this, too, reflects the shrinking horizons of a president with an opposition Congress, diminished political capital and a potential recession looming overhead. Bush has little major domestic legislation left on his to-do list. He has effectively ceded the economy to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the war to Gen. David Petraeus. When he gave a speech on the country's economic troubles in New York the other day, he argued for not doing too much and letting the system correct itself. Today's speech on Iraq will be the third in recent weeks essentially arguing for staying the course in Iraq now that violence has ebbed.
Many news organizations have diverted top correspondents and travel budgets away from the White House to the presidential campaign. Only three newspapers sent reporters with Bush here today, the wire services have cut back on their traveling complements, the news magazines stopped sending reporters with him months ago and the main broadcast networks are here mainly protectively in case he does or says something surprising, which the ultra-disciplined Bush rarely does. The daily briefings now last about a half-hour instead of twice as long as they did a year or two ago. The White House has arranged "exclusive" interviews with high-profile correspondents and low-profile news outlets to keep the president out there.
The White House understood perfectly well that this would happen, naturally. A hyper-competitive presidential campaign was bound to dominate the national dialogue early in the year. The president's aides had hoped there would be an interregnum at some point after the nominations were settled and before the conventions when Bush might be able to get some things accomplished with Congress. The Democrats haven't cooperated by dragging out their intraparty fight so long, but if they manage to wrap it up in the next month or so, White House officials still say they have an opening of several months to push some last things through.
While the voters work things out here at home, the president's attention for now has shifted increasingly overseas. He will welcome Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the White House tomorrow, the seventh head of state he has hosted in the past two weeks. He called China's president yesterday and Egypt's president this morning and just invited the Palestinian president to visit in a few weeks. His trip to Ukraine, Romania, Croatia and Russia next week will be his third foreign journey of the year already, with five more scheduled before the end of the year. His next trip in May will be back to Israel in hopes of jumpstarting the troubled peace talks.
Ultimately, Bush knows that his presidency rests on Iraq and so even if others have moved on, he is most focused on improving the situation there as much as possible in the time he has left. He spent part of yesterday at the Pentagon consulting with his generals about how things are going and talks regularly with Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. In today's speech here at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, aides said he plans to argue that beyond the improvements in security, Iraqis are even making political progress despite long months of stalemate.
If he turns out to be right, he may yet salvage his presidency. If he turns out to be wrong, it means the next president may be here a year from now explaining what he or she plans to do in Iraq. And so the real audience for Bush today may be less cable television than history.
Posted at 10:39 AM ET on Mar 27, 2008
Morning Cheat Sheet
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