Cover Story

'I FULLY UNDERSTAND THE CONSEQUENCES'

President Bush makes his case for staying the course in Iraq-even as his critics and political opponents successfully begin planting doubts in the minds of voters about staying the course in Washington

Issue: "George W. Bush: Gut check," April 24, 2004

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.

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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.

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