President Bush's resolve is something to behold. One Bush aide tells a story of how when he left Texas to work for Bush in the White House after the 2000 election, a friend gave him a photograph of Lyndon Johnson visibly crushed at his desk, looking at casualty reports from Vietnam. The point was to remind this Bush adviser that the burdens of the office can break any man.
Six years into a turbulent presidency, Bush is determinedly un-crushed. Under the weight of a difficult war in Iraq, of regular meetings with families who have lost loved ones, of a hostile press and a vitriolic opposition, Bush has never given any indication of being run down. It is a testament to his physical and, above all, his spiritual strength.
The problem for Bush is that in the current environment, his resolve has become a drag. People hear him say that he will stay in Iraq even if only Laura and Barney still support him, and they think it signals a stubborn unwillingness to adjust. They hear him say that the next president will have to decide whether or not troops are in Iraq, and it sounds as if Bush's Iraq policy is on a mindless auto-pilot.
This is why the phrase "stay the course" has flipped in its political significance. It used to be the rallying cry of the war's supporters. Now, it is gleefully used by critics to discredit the war's supporters. Shrewd Republicans, including the president, have tried to get out from under the phrase by saying they want to "adapt to win." But "stay the course" is sticking, and to the extent that the election is a referendum on that position, Republicans will lose.
Not many people want to stay the course in Iraq, and why should they? The Baghdad security plan is faltering, the violence is intensifying and the Iraqi government is dithering. This is why the Democrats' nebulously defined call for changing the course in Iraq is so attractive. Even many hawks want to change the course (if in an entirely different way than the war's opponents). Bush cannot cede this ground to the Democrats.
He needs to give a "change the course" speech. He cannot give up on his essential goal of establishing a stable, democratic Iraq, but he needs to signal that the strategy in Iraq, the number of troops (we might need more), and all constructive ideas from Democrats or Republicans are on the table, because he is not happy with the progress there and he is working to find better approaches. Bush has given the impression of being detached from reality in Iraq, and that sense is simply deadly.