WASHINGTON -- When George W. Bush faced the nation in a rare prime time press conference, he was responding to a crisis of confidence among his Republican supporters. His recent difficulties in dealing with adversity had planted serious doubts among party leaders. The president's performance Tuesday night eased their anxiety about an imminent loss of support by his base, but worriers were not completely reassured.
Considering how he has handled the first three months of this election year, President Bush's press conference was indeed a welcome relief. Republicans had feared another public relations disaster following twin failures in his State of the Union address and his appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press." While he dodged a third bullet Tuesday night, Republicans concede Bush was less than triumphant.
Republican political operatives are pinching themselves that the polls show the president no worse than even against Democratic challenger John Kerry. That is attributed in the political community to Bush's built-in advantage fighting terrorism and Kerry's flat performance since clinching the Democratic nomination -- a shaky base for electoral success.
Bush was fortunate that high-profile hearings by the independent commission on terrorism and escalated warfare in Iraq coincided with the congressional Easter recess. Had the lawmakers been around, Capitol Hill would have become a wind tunnel of bipartisan complaints about the president.
Congressional Republicans I reached, while unwilling to be quoted by name, were harshly critical that the president and his aides had failed to evoke the impression of strong leadership. They could not believe that Bush stuck to his plans to be at his Texas ranch as violence spiked and death tolls mounted in Iraq. They grumbled that there was no effective White House response to rising criticism and that beleaguered Bush spokesman Scott McClellan was a disaster. They cited Bush adviser Karen Hughes, hawking her book on "Meet the Press" two Sundays ago, as the only effective voice for the president.
The time was past due for Bush to go to the nation. For a president who only twice previously in more than three years had held a prime time televised press conference, Tuesday's venue seemed odd. Dropping in the polls while Iraqi insurgents launched a shooting war, Bush chose to face predictably harsh questions from an unsympathetic press corps. Congressional Republicans asked why he did not go public with a full-length prepared speech. It was too late for that, it was decided at the White House. Now, Bush had to face news media questioning that he detests.