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Behind Bush's speech at U.N. today, a White House on edge
( 2003-09-23 21:57) (New York Times)

When George W. Bush addresses the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday as the unapologetic commander in chief, administration officials acknowledge, behind the proud words will be a president in a less potent political position than a year ago because of setbacks in Iraq and the loss of jobs at home.

President George W. Bush speaks to reporters during a meeting with Iraqi Public Works Minister Nesreen Berwari in the Oval Office of the White House September 22, 2003. Bush returns to the 191-member General Assembly, which he berated for its failure to back the U.S.-led war on Iraq, with what U.S. officials said were no plans to apologize for the situation there or failure to find weapons of mass destruction. [Reuters]
People close to the president say that as the 2004 campaign approaches, the mood at the White House is not one of panic, but that Mr. Bush is worried and his top officials are on edge, particularly about the nearly three million jobs lost since Mr. Bush became president and about the so-far jobless recovery.

At the same time, Bush advisers acknowledge a high level of anxiety among House Republicans over what they perceive as the White House's inability to communicate its policies on Iraq effectively.

The problems have led to a new sense of urgency at the White House, Republicans say, with much riding on the president's speech to the General Assembly. In words written as much for a domestic audience as for an international one, Mr. Bush is expected to make limited concessions giving the United Nations more control in Baghdad, as the allies would like. But he will keep real authority in American hands.

"There's a feeling that you have to assert that the United States is still in control, if nothing else for domestic concerns," said a senior administration official, who, like most of those interviewed, requested anonymity.

"We're going into an election year and the president has to project an image of power and authority," the official added. "There will be a lot of language implying that we're not going anywhere. We're asking for help, but not for anyone to take over."

Mr. Bush's speech will also serve as a central thrust of a White House communications push intended to show the president as proactive on Iraq and the economy, the areas where White House officials readily concede he is most vulnerable politically. Mr. Bush will continue to travel the nation promoting his tax cuts as a way to create jobs.

"They understand they need to be aggressive in defining the Iraq policy, and they need to show that they have a focus on job creation, and then they need to be forceful in communicating both," said David Winston, a Republican pollster close to the White House. "There's a sense of urgency that things need to be done, and done quickly."

William Kristol, a conservative publisher with close ties to the administration, said that White House officials understood they had made mistakes, and that they had switched tactics.

"Until about two weeks ago they believed their own propaganda that all was well in Iraq and at home," Mr. Kristol said. "But reality has set in, and they're hard-headed in dealing with the problems they face."

Several nationwide polls show support for Mr. Bush and his policies dropping in important areas. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll, conducted over the weekend and released today, found that 50 percent of the public said the war in Iraq was worthwhile, while 48 percent said it was not. In August, the poll found 63 percent of Americans backing the war.

The poll also found that Mr. Bush's overall approval rating was the lowest since he became president, falling to 50 percent. In August, the poll found that 59 percent of American's approved of his job performance, and in April the figure was 71 percent.

Officially, administration officials say that they had expected the drop in support for the president, and that they were not concerned about the turn of events. "We put out a memo three months ago predicting that this was going to happen," Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said.

But unofficially, some administration officials say they are experiencing the unpleasant sensation of not feeling in control of events. "I think there is a sense of being under assault and not being able to reclaim the upper hand in a way that seemed so effortless in the past," said one Bush adviser.

The new concern began in the summer, one official said, when L. Paul Bremer III, the American administrator in Iraq, traveled to Washington to tell Mr. Bush, among others, that the situation was bleak in Baghdad and that he needed billions of additional dollars for the kind of security and reconstruction that would let the administration begin a significant troop withdrawal within a year. Although no administration official says so explicitly, the White House goal is to show substantial improvement in Iraq before next fall's re-election campaign.

For now, Mr. Bush's political aides are largely dismissive of the Democratic presidential candidates, although some Republicans say the White House is more worried than it lets on about the ability of Howard Dean to energize the Democrats. Mr. Bush, in an interview with Fox News broadcast today, said he was playing little attention to the rise of Dr. Dean.

"Occasionally it blips on my radar screen, but not nearly as much as you would think," he said.


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