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The White House is presenting a Zen face, but it is also taking action. In addition to putting members of the war cabinet in nontraditional media outlets and increasing the President's exposure, it has started regular twice-weekly conference calls with its allies on the Hill to supply anecdotes about improvements in the lives of Iraqis and successes in the war on terrorism, trusting that they will work their way on to talk radio and cable TV. And in early October the Bush team will launch a blog to chronicle the campaign online.
Some in the Administration dismiss the grumbling, even within their ranks. One senior official compared the complaints over the $87 billion to the father of the bride disputing the size of the wedding bill. That attitude misses signs of discontent from Republican members of Congress who say privately what's really eating them isn't the money but the slipshod postwar operation. "It would be helpful if they would say, 'We were caught flat-footed, but now we're handling it,'" says a G.O.P. Congressman. "But they won't." Talking to his aides, Bush believes in sticking to an optimistic vision: "You can't say, 'Follow me--things are going to hell in a handbasket.'" Plus, the President's supporters love it when he doesn't blink. "His greatest strength among the base is that he says what he believes and does not bend," says a top Michigan Republican.
The Administration may not be communicating well, or Americans may just not be buying what the White House is selling. For months, the President has been trying to convince Americans that the sacrifices in Iraq are as necessary a response to the attacks of 9/11 as the campaign in Afghanistan. Bush's prime-time Sunday-night speech three weeks ago used the soaring rhetoric that had worked in the past to rally the country to the cause, but it didn't work. By a margin of 51% to 41%, Americans oppose the President's request for the money, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
One risk of the new campaign of positive talk is that it can all be undone by a single high-profile bombing in Baghdad, painting the Bush team as either out of touch or Pollyannaish. And it also won't be easy for the Administration to convince viewers of Oprah and Letterman that progress is being made in Iraq, just when the Pentagon is extending tours of duty and calling up reservists, which means more missed birthday parties and lower pay for just the kind of viewers the Administration is trying to win over. --With reporting by Matthew Cooper/Washington