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.
The result was an unprecedented hybrid: the president delivering a 17-minute speech to the nation over the heads of reporters, who anxiously waited their turn. Bush was ready to parry Democratic claims that Iraq was becoming another Vietnam, contending that the "false" analogy "sends the wrong message to our troops and sends the wrong message to the enemy." Facing the anticipated onslaught of press demands that he apologize or admit error, the president wisely avoided an answer that would have been repeated endlessly on television.
Inexplicably, however, Bush seemed adrift when asked whether he had ever made a mistake other than trading Sammy Sosa to the Chicago Cubs when he owned the Texas Rangers. He apparently did not anticipate being asked why he and Vice President Dick Cheney insisted on testifying together to the independent commission, and simply refused to give a responsive answer even when the question was repeated. That is why the president avoids press conferences.
If Bush did not excel Tuesday night, he probably did well enough to avoid mass defection of supporters that has become the deepest foreboding in the Republican political community. Their apprehensions have been eased by the lackluster performance of Sen. Kerry, looking more like Bob Dole than Bill Clinton as a presidential challenger. Republicans have been reassured and Democrats alarmed how quickly Bush-Cheney campaign advertising drove up Kerry's negatives.
Wiser heads in both parties, however, realize that presidential re-election campaigns ultimately become a referendum on the incumbent. The consensus among Republican operatives I contacted was that George W. Bush gets passing grades for his press conference after what he calls "tough weeks" but must do better in the predictably difficult months ahead.