Pointing Fingers

Who's to blame for President Bush's recent troubles--his staff, the agencies under his command, or the leader himself?

Former White House adviser George Stephanopoulos, once asked to account for a Bill Clinton gaffe, explained that the 42nd president had been "ill-staffed." If President Bush was a finger-pointing kind of guy, there are several candidates in his employ for such a description.

Just a year after winning a second term, Bush's job-approval rating is hovering in the 30s -- the lowest for a second-term president since Richard Nixon. Democrats scalped Republicans in Virginia and New Jersey elections this month, leaving GOP candidates openly fearful about 2006; Bush's signature domestic issue of the year -- Social Security reform -- has gone nowhere; and the Iraq war grinds on with mounting casualties.

So, whom should Bush blame?

Well, he could start with Dick Cheney, the front man on Saddam Hussein's proximity to nuclear weapons. It was the vice president who predicted that American troops would "be greeted as liberators" in Iraq. If Bush looks to the Pentagon, he might recall that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed Army estimates that "several hundred thousand" U.S. soldiers would be needed to control Iraq.

On the domestic side, political mastermind Karl Rove assured the president that the way to celebrate re-election was to take on Social Security, the most popular government program of the last century. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card deduced that naming a Texas lawyer and Bush friend with no experience in constitutional law to the Supreme Court was a brilliant stroke.

The uncertain response of Bush's Homeland Security Department, and its stepchild FEMA, exacerbated the suffering after two hurricanes battered the Gulf Coast. Cheney's former top aide, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, got himself indicted for his part in discrediting administration critic Joseph Wilson -- while helping to make Wilson a best-selling author.

White House communications officials inexplicably ceded the field for months to liberal critics who have insisted that Bush "lied" about weapons of mass destruction. And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist this week caved on a Senate amendment putting pressure on the U.S. to get out of Iraq.

So there is no shortage of culprits, not counting the biggest one of all: When he shaves each morning, George W. Bush could point to the man in the mirror as the source of his troubles. He's the one who made the decision that, according to public opinion surveys, has done more to undermine his standing than any other issue.

"There's a whole lot of blame to go around, but you don't go to war unless the president of the United States says so," says P.J. Crowley, a Clinton foreign policy aide. "Iraq was his decision."

But West Wing aides said this week that notwithstanding news accounts speculating that Bush is more distant from Cheney these days, and less enamored of Rove, they have seen little evidence that the president is peering inward at himself or at his aides. He is not searching for scapegoats on Iraq, they say, because he still believes that things will turn out well there.

With the exception of his team's response to Hurricane Katrina, which did give Bush pause, they describe a president who dismisses criticism, particularly on the war, as partisan or misguided.

That's pretty typical of commanders-in-chief, during times of war or peace.

"As a rule of thumb, presidents find it extraordinarily difficult to admit fault," says Shirley Anne Warshaw, a presidency scholar at Gettysburg College. "Presidents tend to believe that their decisions were not faulty in the first place and, perhaps more importantly, that the admission of fault in one decision could be the beginning of a slippery slope in public confidence in presidential decision-making."

But because of his cocky public persona, Bush is finding that his steadfastness -- a trait usually considered a virtue -- is increasingly perceived as a flaw. Americans have always found Bush hard-headed, but they also considered him to be decisive, principled, and likable. Increasingly, however, people appear to be concluding that Bush's mulish nature has a downside -- and this realization is coloring their view of him in other areas.

In an Ipsos Public Affairs poll conducted earlier this month, 82 percent of Americans said they consider Bush "stubborn" -- up from 75 percent a year ago. Worse, from Bush's standpoint, only 57 percent (down from 75) found him decisive; 54 percent (down from 65) considered him "strong"; 42 percent (down from 53) thought him "honest."

Many of Bush's critics equate his unwavering approach, particularly regarding Iraq, with a nearly pathological unwillingness to admit mistakes. Even more ominous, in their critiques of his presidency, these critics have coalesced around a single, animating idea: that Bush and his top aides deliberately exaggerated the extent of Saddam's arsenal of prohibited weaponry.

At first, this theory was the realm of Michael Mooresville. But a lot of Americans saw Moore's movie, and they weren't all Bush-hating left-wingers. Moreover, history didn't stop with Bush's re-election: American military personnel kept dying, a few every week, until the number of dead surpassed 2,000.

A tenacious Gold Star mother camped out in front of Bush's Texas ranch. The two-year mark of the invasion passed with no end in sight. Libby got indicted. Democratic senators who supported Bush's war resolution began looking to explain a vote they had come to rue. So they, too, began voicing the rhetoric of Bush's "lies" and "manipulating the intelligence."

And one week -- in late June, to be exact -- a majority of Americans told pollsters that Bush "deliberately misled" the public before the war. This was a singularly ominous development in Bush's presidency, but the White House was slow to react. Bush's aides considered it a smear so outside the realm of truth or logic that they thought it wouldn't stick -- that it would, in fact, discredit those making the claim.

"No one would justify a war based on information you know to be false and which would be shown to be false within months after the war concluded," says White House aide Peter Wehner. "The claim that the president 'lied' about the war is both demonstrably untrue and implausible."

Nevertheless, this perception has now metastasized into a kind of national conventional wisdom. In the past week, it finally galvanized the White House into action.

In firing back, White House officials have revealed in public statements and private asides whom Bush blames for the current state of affairs. His nominees, in descending order, appear to be Senate Democrats (at least those who voted for the Iraq war and now oppose it), the media, and the CIA.

"Reasonable people can disagree about the conduct of the war, but it is irresponsible for Democrats to now claim that we misled them and the American people," Bush said on Monday at Alaska's Elmendorf Air Force Base.

The president read a litany of prewar quotes from three Democratic senators (Harry Reid, Carl Levin, and Jay Rockefeller IV) who voted for the war and are now griping about it, adding at the end: "They spoke the truth then, and they're speaking politics now."

Bush made a similar speech in Pennsylvania on Veterans Day. The following morning, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters that the administration acted on "the same intelligence" that led the Clinton administration, world leaders, and the Senate to conclude that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and would eventually use them.

"It was relied on by the prior administration and other world leaders, the Congress, the president of the United States," Hadley added. "Turns out, we were wrong."

Any criticism of the CIA for this miscalculation was only implicit. Even privately, White House aides would not fault George Tenet, the Clinton-chosen CIA director who famously assured Bush that the WMD case against Saddam was a "slam dunk."

But if Tenet avoided a hit, anti-war Democrats did not. White House Counselor Dan Bartlett made the rounds of the network morning talk shows on Monday to denounce the Democrats for behavior that was "unbecoming" to national leaders.

The White House is doing "stuff they should have been doing a long time ago," says Richard Carlson, vice president of the conservative-leaning Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "They acted as though it was beneath the president to respond. But one and a half years later, I don't know if it will have an impact."

White House aides privately conceded the criticism. "There was a reluctance to relitigate the war, because of the issue of the [missing] WMD," one said. "But, finally, the president felt like enough was enough."

Plummeting poll numbers apparently concentrate the mind.

"We're being battered, for sure, but there's not a sense of drift or lack of energy," said another Bush aide. "We're in a political brawl now -- and a tough war in Iraq."

That's all well and good, but the second part of that realization underscores the true dimensions of Bush's challenge. For starters, Hadley's admission about WMD -- "Turns out, we were wrong" -- came late, and it raises the question of what comes next. The White House answer is: Iraq's December elections. But Iraqis have gone to the polls twice now, with no diminution in the violence, and American voters no longer share Bush's optimism. If anything, they mirror the Democrats' ambivalence.

"I don't see a lot of difference between what is happening with the Senate Democrats and the general public," says University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles O. Jones. "Senate Democrats are working out how it was they supported the war that is now unpopular. The public, too, supported the war and, likewise, wants a reason to distance themselves. Must be that Bush misled everyone!"

Such thinking frustrates Bush's lieutenants, but they realize they have to answer it. "You win by engaging," one White House aide said. "It's got to be litigated. It's not just politics -- it's history."

They also understand something else as well, although they are reluctant to talk about it, even off the record: To truly win the argument, the United States must ultimately win on the battlefield of Iraq. And if the Senate is any barometer, "ultimately" means "soon."

"That's why the elections that are key for us are not next year," said this official, referring to the U.S. midterms in 2006, "but the ones next month -- in Iraq."