Bush Wins War of Headlines

The Democrats got face time on TV Thursday night in Sen. Jack Reed's response to President Bush's Oval Office address on Iraq. But it was Bush who got the headlines this morning.

Washington Post: "Bush Tells Nation He Will Begin to Roll Back Surge"

New York Times: "Bush Says Success Allows Gradual Troop Cuts"

USA Today: "Bush Ties Pullback to Success in Iraq"

ChicagoTribune.com: "Bush Vows Troop Cuts"

LATimes.com: "Bush Says He'll Start Bringing Troops Home Before Christmas"

Most headlines emphasized the troop cutback and Bush's claim of some success. Powerful words: "troop cuts … roll back … success." Democratic claims that the projected cut to pre-surge levels "does not amount to real change" were often reported only in the accompanying story and in smaller headlines such as in USA Today: "Shift not enough, Dems say."

Some stories were critical, but often they were inside the paper and harder to find. On page A6 a Washington Post "Fact Check" reported that "President Bush made a case for progress in Iraq by citing facts and statistics that at times contradicted recent government reports or his own words."

Editorial Writers Unmoved by Bush Address

Editorial writers were, for the most part, unmoved by the president's announcement, and many retained deep doubts about his war strategy. The New York Times, a longtime critic of the war, said Bush had again refused "to recognize the truth of his failure in Iraq." Most editorial writers also agreed that it will be up to the next president to end the war. But more readers pay attention to front-page headlines than to editorials.

Veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart concedes that "they [the White House] have won the line of scrimmage. They have defined the debate." Hart and several other political observers say it was smart politics to have Gen. David Petraeus make the first announcements. Americans, they said, put more trust in a man in uniform than in a commander in chief whose credibility has been damaged.

Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said the president "has handled the last week … more artfully than he has since the beginning of the war by stepping out of the way and letting this become the Petraeus plan … which really made it difficult for Democrats during all his testimony on Capitol Hill."

Bush Shores Up Party Support, Buys More Time

Ornstein also said Bush "for the first time offered a conciliatory tone and a sense that he was changing policy even though he, practically speaking, was not really making a significant change at all."

Ornstein joined others in saying that although this week was "not an unbridled success for the president," it helped him with some of his fellow Republicans. Although some GOP moderates, such as Maine Sen. Susan Collins, felt the president did not really change course, the president appears to have enough Republican support to fight off Democratic attempts to force major changes.

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution told ABC News, "Bush managed to shore up his base in the Congress and the country and buy himself more time to maintain his surge-level troop deployment."

Mann said no one believes that the decision to withdraw surge combat brigades by next summer "is dictated by improved security conditions in Iraq." It was dictated, said Mann, by "the need to respond politically to Republican demands for a clear and early sign of troop withdrawal."

The MoveOn Factor

Bush may also have received an unintended gift from the liberal group MoveOn.org whose controversial ad in The New York Times suggested that Petraeus might be "cooking the books." In wordplay on the general's name, the ad also said Petraeus might become "General Betray Us."

Ornstein described the ad as an "over-the-top ad bashing an icon … and it hurt the Democrats who are not in a position to get the Republican votes they need on the war. It put people who identify with an anti-war position on the defensive, so it really hurt."

Even so, analysts say any gains the president made this week are limited. Although Bush may have helped himself with some Republicans, they say most Americans still oppose Bush's handling of the war.

The War of the Headlines

Democrat Peter Hart said despite all the discussion this last week "the public will still not feel there is a new policy, a new way out of Iraq. I don't think they [the White House] have changed public opinion. I think that they won the war of the headlines."

As for winning over Republicans, Hart says, "Instead of 60 percent of Republicans defecting from him, he has only 40 percent defecting. That's still a lot."

There is a consensus that the president had a good week. There is also a consensus that it is only one week.

Brookings' Mann said the president told the nation "that things are getting better."

Now, says Mann, Bush has to deliver: "If security and political conditions fail to meet his expectations, he will be under enormous pressure to change course in the spring. MoveOn.org gave him a political boost, to be sure, but that will fade and conditions on the ground in Iraq will once again dominate."