Voices

'Not well enough, not fast enough'

Why did we have to wait so long for the president to engage us?

Issue: "GOP downfall," Nov. 18, 2006

It was the morning after "the drubbin'," and George W. Bush was both loose and lucid. He had just announced to the Washington press corps that Donald Rumsfeld would be stepping down as secretary of defense.

The president was blunt and straightforward about the massacre his party had endured at the hands of American voters. Then he spoke of the probable cause for most of that political bloodletting: the maddening massacre for the past three years in Iraq. "We haven't executed well enough for the American voters," the president summarized, "and not fast enough."

Oddly-and quite sadly both for himself and for so many of his supporters-Mr. Bush might well have been speaking of the last couple of years of his presidential performance. "Not well enough, not fast enough." But here he was with a gaggle of reporters (some hostile to his leadership, others just cynical), masterfully weaving, bobbing, jabbing, and punching his way through their obstacle course, so that you couldn't possibly watch it without asking: "Where have you been in recent months, Mr. President? Why didn't you do this well on the campaign trail? Why weren't you a little faster on the uptake?"

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Asked whether now-in light of the election-he didn't have to admit that Iraq was really just another Vietnam, the president was immediate, clear, and forceful in dramatizing the differences. Iraq has a duly formed constitution and an elected government; Vietnam had neither. The U.S. forces in Iraq are all volunteers, not draftees; morale is high enough to be producing noteworthy reenlistments. And at home the United States is supportive of the troops in Iraq, whereas the home base had lost its support for troops in Vietnam.

It was a brilliant, forceful, and concise argument-and exactly the specifics that millions of Americans had needed to hear during the campaign to set aside their concerns that indeed we had gotten bogged down once more in an unwinnable war. But when I asked a handful of folks (all of them pretty astute political observers) whether they'd heard the president even once take such an approach, no one could remember that he had.

Not once in the press conference did the president fall back on his old "stay-the-course" line about Iraq, that three-word chant that had to be a turn-off for tens of thousands of voters. But if "stay-the-course" will never be part of his vocabulary again, you still have to ask why it took as long as it did for the president and his advisers to sense how ready-made the little phrase was for Democratic devastation of his Iraq policies. And why was it so clear, just a few hours after the returns were in, that the time had come to set the phrase aside?

If all this sounds like a broadside against an already beleaguered president, keep in mind the context: I'm applauding his press conference performance. It is instead to raise the question so dominant in the minds of many of Mr. Bush's long-time supporters: Why, when you hold the convictions you do, and why, when you from time to time demonstrate the capacity to argue for those convictions so passionately and winsomely-why do you go for such considerable stretches with little or nothing to say about the big issues? Why forfeit, or at least minimize, some of the programs you've sometimes said you wanted to be the trademarks of your time in office? You're the only man in the world right now with the bully pulpit of the presidency. Why use it so cautiously and sparingly?

But maybe it takes being in a corner to bring out the best in George W. Bush. If that's the case, the opportunity is huge. If that's what it takes, the last two years of his presidency may actually hold some unusual promise.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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