If love means never having to say you're sorry, then President Bush is looking for a whole lot of love from voters.
He certainly isn't getting it from the press. On April 13, in only the third prime-time press conference of his administration, Mr. Bush was challenged repeatedly to apologize to the American public for failing to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or for taking the country to war with Iraq.
He steadfastly refused to do so. "I'm sick when I think about the death that took place that day," the president replied when John Roberts of NBC News asked if he wanted to apologize for the Sept. 11 attacks. But he had no doubts as to who owed the apology. "The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden," he stressed.
On the subject of Iraq, Mr. Bush refused to admit any mistakes in planning or execution, and he said he would still have made the decision to invade even if he'd known about Saddam Hussein's apparent lack of chemical or biological weapons. "I fully understand the consequences of what we're doing," he insisted. "We're changing the world."
Still, the press conference itself was a sign of just how quickly the political world has changed closer to home. The always optimistic chief executive offered what he admitted was a "somber assessment" following two "tough ... gut-wrenching" weeks in Iraq. As violence in Fallujah and Najaf has escalated, the administration's poll numbers have declined. Approval for Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq now hovers in the mid-40s, and just over 50 percent of Americans approve of the way he's handling the terrorist threat.
Just a few months ago - eons, in political time - Mr. Bush's tough foreign policy was supposed to be his best hope of another four years in the White House. Pundits predicted that the economy, if anything, would be the Bush administration's Achilles heel. Like his father, Mr. Bush was given high marks for his handling of foreign affairs, but sluggish growth and weak employment numbers threatened to limit both Bushes to a single term.
Then, suddenly, the economy took off, growing at a blistering rate of more than 8 percent. After several slow months, the job market followed, adding some 300,000 jobs in March alone.
But just as suddenly, something entirely unexpected happened: Voters began to doubt the administration's leadership on issues like terrorism and war. The steady drip of bad news from Iraq turned into a flood in April, with more than 80 American deaths reported in just the first two weeks of the month. Meanwhile, as U.S. troops battled insurgents across central and southern Iraq, the administration battled its critics on Capitol Hill. Weeks of contentious hearings by the 9/11 Commission left many Americans wondering what might have been done to stop the attacks - and even whether the unthinkable could happen again.
Despite the good economic news, surveys show Mr. Bush is unusually vulnerable for an incumbent president. An April poll by the Associated Press found that only 18 percent of respondents ranked the economy as the biggest problem facing the country, down sharply from 31 percent last July. On the other hand, the number of Americans who said war is their No. 1 concern nearly doubled, from 9 percent in July to 17 percent today. Likewise, terrorism was cited by 21 percent in the latest poll, up from 14 percent earlier.
With fears of war and terrorism tarnishing the Bush image on foreign policy, Democrats see a real chance for an upset. John Kerry, their presumptive nominee, can boast war-hero credentials that help to camouflage his lack of any coherent plan for winning the war in Iraq. Despite the absence of solutions from the Kerry camp, a surprising number of voters say they're ready for a change: An April 12 Newsweek poll showed Mr. Bush trailing his Democratic rival by 7 percentage points, well outside the margin of error. (Other polls conducted around the same time still show the race in a statistical dead heat.)
With seven months to go until Election Day, April polls might not normally be a huge cause for alarm at the White House. But two sources of ongoing bad news - the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq conflict - remain largely out of the president's control, and the timing of new developments on those two fronts could well determine who wins on Nov. 2.
These days, the never-ending hearings by the 9/11 Commission don't look like much of a political powder keg. The earlier frenzy surrounding the testimony of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and former terrorism czar Richard Clarke has largely died down, leaving plenty of empty seats in both the press gallery and the section reserved for victims' families.
"There were more still cameras on the dais taking pictures of Condoleezza Rice than during the Watergate investigation," said Lisa Sullivan, a commission staffer working the registration table outside the hearing chambers. "We were letting people through the door 10 at a time." On April 13, by contrast, despite high-profile testimony by Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft and his predecessor, Janet Reno, things were quiet-even sleepy.
"I don't know, maybe we're all pooped," ventured Emily Walker, a co-worker sitting next to Miss Sullivan.
Nevertheless, while the hearings may lack the drama of weeks past, they're still fraught with danger for the Bush administration. An April 12 staff report ripped the FBI for failing to make domestic terrorism a top priority, and both Mr. Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller came under withering criticism from commission members. Even Mr. Bush appeared to back off his earlier, unequivocal support for the bureau, saying he might consider assigning responsibility for domestic terrorism to a not-yet-created separate agency, patterned after Britain's MI-5.
The commission has not said when it plans to wrap up its work or how many more staff reports it plans to issue in the meantime. Damaging though such interim reports might be, the administration's real concern centers on the committee's ultimate findings, due sometime this summer. Campaign season will be in full swing by then, and any criticism of Mr. Bush by the commission is sure to become political fodder for the Democrats.
With the commission carefully balanced between Republicans and Democrats, no one can predict what the final report will look like. It's bound to be more coherent, at least, than the handwritten fax distributed at last week's hearings by a man carrying a red gym bag on his shoulder. "By The First Officer To Ground Control. all speakers (audio) on air craft Be come mickerphones Transmitted to FBI USAF ad aircraft owner," read the Xeroxed sheet. "I plan to come to Washington DC to Testifie or ask questions about 9/11 blunders By The Government."
Even a report free of spelling errors and conspiracy theories won't be good news for the administration, however. Second-guessing, no matter how generous, can only make earlier decisions look incorrect or ill-informed. And blame-sharing, no matter how evenly spread, can only hurt Mr. Bush, since his predecessor is safely out of office and beyond the wrath of voters.
Still, the good news for the administration is that when it comes to terrorism, Americans seem to be more focused on the future than the past. Though some voters may believe more might have been done to prevent 9/11, there is no denying that the country has avoided any major terrorist attacks since that time.
That helps to explain why the president continues to receive majority approval for his handling of terrorism, despite some erosion in recent weeks. Voters appear to give him credit for protecting the country's borders from a persistent and dangerous enemy. And that, in turn, raises the stakes for Muslim extremists who would like nothing more than to drive Mr. Bush from power. A Spanish-style attack on the eve of the election could cost Mr. Bush his job, just as it did his staunch ally, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.
It's a challenge Mr. Bush himself recognizes. Speaking of the terrorists who planned the 9/11 attacks, he told reporters at the press conference: "I'm afraid they want to hurt us again. They're still there. They can be right one time; we've got to be right a hundred percent of the time in order to protect the country. It's a mighty task."
The task in Iraq is no less mighty and no less politically risky. Indeed, while the public views the terrorist threat as a mess largely inherited from previous administrations, Mr. Bush can claim sole ownership of the war in Iraq. In the wake of 9/11, he declared that American troops had the right to strike preemptively against terrorists and their sponsors - a philosophy that came to be known as the Bush Doctrine.
It was that doctrine that served as the main justification for invading Iraq. The vast majority of Americans backed the war, based on the argument that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. When months of searching failed to turn up such weapons, however, most voters didn't seem to mind. Polls continue to show strong support for the president's other main goal in Iraq: fostering freedom and democracy.
"Fighting alongside the people of Iraq, we will defeat the terrorists who seek to plunge Iraq into chaos and violence, and we will stand with the people of Iraq for as long as necessary to build a stable, peaceful, and successful democracy," Mr. Bush said in his weekly radio address of March 6, 2004.
He repeated the theme often during his April 13 press conference. "Iraq will either be a peaceful, democratic country or it will once again be a source of violence, a haven for terror," he said. "The nation of Iraq is moving toward self-rule, and Iraqis and Americans will see evidence in the months to come."
The problem for Mr. Bush is that such evidence has thus far been almost as elusive as Saddam's fabled weapons of mass destruction. Without visible progress in building a "stable, peaceful, and successful democracy," the president risks the perception that American lives have been lost in vain.
Despite tens of billions of dollars and more than 100,000 U.S. troops, Iraq seems in danger of anarchy or civil war one year after its liberation. Whole towns have been taken over by insurgents, however briefly. Iraqi troops supporting the coalition sometimes fight, sometimes flee. Long-oppressed Shiites, led by a radical young cleric, have turned against the country that freed them from Saddam's tyranny. Roadside ambushes have become commonplace, and American casualties have reached their highest rate since the fall of Baghdad. As of mid-April, various factions held more than three dozen foreign hostages. And several members of the pro-American Iraqi Governing Council resigned in protest over the Pentagon's get-tough policy in Fallujah.
Despite the turmoil, the president stood by his June 30 deadline for handing over political power, arguing that any delay will be interpreted as breaking trust with the Iraqi people. Though Mr. Bush himself couldn't say what sort of transitional government might be formed (see sidebar), one thing is certain: That government will continue to have plenty of American military support. Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, has asked for at least 10,000 additional troops to deal with the growing insurgency.
"If that's what he wants, that's what he gets," the president told reporters. "And we'll need to be there for a while."
Already National Guard and Army Reserve units scheduled to come home around Easter have had their duties extended by up to four months, generating a flurry of negative press in their home states of Florida, Wisconsin, and Oregon-all expected to be battleground states in November.
If there is any silver lining for President Bush, it is that the Democrats have so far been unable to capitalize on the public's growing doubts about Iraq. Mr. Kerry's plan for restoring order is nothing more specific than turning over power to the United Nations - despite the fact that the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad proves many Iraqis would hardly be pleased with such an arrangement. Furthermore, Mr. Kerry can't criticize the Pentagon's request for additional soldiers without appearing to abandon the U.S. troops already in Iraq.
Still, month after month of bad news from Iraq increases the chance that voters will simply opt for any alternative - no matter how ill-defined - rather than sticking with the status quo. "The American people may decide to change - that's democracy," Mr. Bush acknowledged during his press conference. Still: "I don't plan on losing my job. I plan on telling the American people that I've got a plan to win the war on terror. And I believe they'll stay with me."
That may not sound like true love, but at this point, Republicans would gladly settle for a continued marriage of convenience.
- with reporting by Priya Abraham in Washington