- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

President Bush, amid falling poll numbers, last night sought to turn America’s focus away from war casualties and prisoner scandals to a future of freedom and democracy in Iraq.

As he laid out a specific plan for the June 30 transfer of power from the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to an interim body to be selected by a United Nations coordinator, the president’s subtext was to paint with broad strokes what comes next in Iraq.

More than that, Mr. Bush’s goal was simply to tell Americans that he has a plan for Iraq. It was a move long overdue, Republican pollster Frank Luntz said.

“The public does not understand that on the 30th of June, American troops aren’t leaving. He must have figured this out, and I don’t know what took [the administration] so long,” he said. “It’s better now than never, but it should have been a month ago.”

Although the president has repeatedly said in speeches across the country that his administration has a cohesive plan to take Iraq from postwar chaos to full sovereignty and democracy, the message has not hit home.

“Just because you’ve said it a hundred times doesn’t mean anyone heard it once. And I think they’ve discovered that,” Mr. Luntz said. “Where we go from here is what the public wants to know.”

The president has been hammered at home over the rising casualties in Iraq and a scandal over photos showing the abuse of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib, a prison outside Baghdad. For months, the bad news has eclipsed the good, including an expanding economy and the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

In the last several weeks, even Republicans have begun to criticize Mr. Bush over his administration’s handling of Iraq. On Sunday, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said the president was developing Iraq policy in a vacuum and failing to “understand a bigger view, wider-lens view of the world.”

With five months before the November election, Mr. Bush’s public job-approval rating yesterday hit an all-time low in his presidency — 41 percent.

Because of what some analysts say has been a failure of communication, 61 percent of more than 1,000 people surveyed by CBS News disapprove of the way Mr. Bush is handling Iraq. The poll also found 65 percent believe the country is heading in the wrong direction.

Mr. Luntz said much of the criticism suffered by the Bush administration in recent months has been self-inflicted.

“This administration has a history of doing a fantastic job two weeks after they should have done an adequate job,” he said. “This president is a great communicator, but he has to be because he stumbles into these problems.”

Kenneth Weinstein of the conservative Hudson Institute said Mr. Bush’s speech was targeted not just at an American audience, but also to citizens in Iraq and the international community.

The United States and Britain yesterday offered a U.N. resolution urging countries to send troops for a U.S.-led international force and endorse the June 30 turnover.

In the final analysis, Mr. Bush simply had no choice but to address a situation that many Americans feel is out of control.

“Normally, the president can set the agenda. But the terrorists have tried, instead, to set the agenda,” Mr. Weinstein said.

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