Friday, January 21, 2005

Bush's legacy will be determined by war's outcome
Friday, January 21, 2005

Bush's legacy will be determined by war's outcome

AP political writer

An Associated Press news analysis

WASHINGTON — Not a word on Iraq. President Bush's inaugural address contained 2,000 words of passion and promise for his second term, but no direct mention of the war that could sink it.

The conflict in Iraq, win or lose, could define his presidency. Bush knows this as well as anyone, which explains his strategic omission.

As he swore the oath for a second time, U.S. casualty totals in Iraq stood at more than 1,360 dead and 10,500 wounded. The war already cost $100 billion, with a pricetag running at more than $1 billion a week.

A majority of Americans say the conflict is not worth the cost in lives and money, polls show, though they seem willing to give the president time to stabilize Iraq.

Bush asked for the public's patience Thursday, as he did during his re-election campaign. "Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon,'' the president said.

That, along with a tribute to fallen troops, is the closest Bush got to mentioning Iraq.

He focused instead on the global war against terrorism, which Bush has deftly linked to Iraq. With allies already wary of his aggressive world view, Bush pledged to fight evil wherever it lurks: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.''

Democrat Franklin Roosevelt used a similar logic in his 1945 inaugural, delivered months before his death during World War II. "We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent upon the well-being of other nations, far away,'' Roosevelt said.

Bush likes to compare the war on terrorism to World War II, both generational battles against tyranny — a word he used five times Thursday. Bush uttered "liberty'' 15 times and "freedom'' 27 times.

Fighting and killing terrorists has the advantage of being politically popular, and his promise to do so stirs memories of the Sept. 11 attacks — "a day of fire'' and Bush's shining hour.

Indeed, the key to Bush's re-election victory was his ability to convince a majority of voters that Iraq is part of his anti-terrorism campaign. Despite what Bush has suggested, voters did not ratify his Iraq policies last November — not in their entirety. Americans did accept his explanation, for the time being, that Iraq is part of the broader battle against the nation's enemies.

Will voters continue to accept Bush's rationale?

"That's the great unanswered question,'' said Tom Rath, a Bush ally and senior member of the Republican National Committee. "Iraq has the capacity of draining the president politically or, if it works out, mobilizing people behind him.''

"If the perception is that democracy is taking hold, he becomes virtually invulnerable,'' Rath said. "If not, well, let's not talk about that.''

They do talk about worst-case scenarios in halls of the White House, but only in whispers.

"Unless we get Iraq straightened out, and quick, anything else we try is futile,'' said a senior White House aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid stepping on the president's inaugural message.

Bush begins a second term in a politically perilous position. His approval rating is about 50 percent, lower than any recent second-term president with the exception of Richard Nixon. Most Americans give him high marks for fighting terrorism, but are skeptical of his policies on Social Security, taxes, the national debt, immigration and health care.

Iraq is the source of greatest concern. Six in 10 say the Iraqi elections this month will not stabilize the country, though just as many say it's a good first step.

The war has become a personal tragedy in millions of American households. On the morning of Bush's inauguration, newspapers across the country carried reports of car bombings in Iraq. The Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest newspaper, wrote about a local National Guard battalion deploying to Iraq for a year.

Preparing his troops for their dangerous mission, Lt. Col. Roch Switlike said, "Anyone who looks like they're going to mess with us, you give them a look that says, ‘If you mess with us, you will be dead.' Who knows, they may just say ‘Whoa' and wait for the next guy.''

While these and other troops hope not to be "the next guy,'' Bush is focusing the nation on an unusually ambitious second-term agenda. He wants to revamp Social Security, the tax code and the legal system while putting conservative judges on the bench and expanding his education initiatives.

"You didn't elect me to do small things,'' Bush told RNC members in a private session this week. "I got four years and I'm going to use them.''

How effectively he uses that time will likely depend upon, in a word, Iraq.

Ron Fournier has covered politics and the White House for The Associated Press since 1993.