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Bush Seeking to Shift Iraq Focus to the Positive

As deaths mount, the administration emphasizes the ouster of Hussein and progress toward the goal of building a free nation.

October 09, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Determined to halt a rise in public concern about American deaths in Iraq, the White House on Wednesday launched a public relations offensive designed to highlight what administration officials say is significant progress toward the goal of building a free and prosperous nation.

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice gave the inaugural address of the communications effort, arguing in a Chicago speech that whatever setbacks may have taken place since President Bush declared major combat over May 1, the United States was still right to depose Saddam Hussein.

Bush picked up the theme later in the day, giving an unusually spirited defense of the U.S.-declared war on terrorism as he told the crowd at a $14-million Republican National Committee fund-raising event that "America did the right thing" in ousting Hussein.

"I was not going to stand by and wait and trust the sanity and restraint of Mr. Saddam Hussein," he said as a partisan audience of thousands roared its approval.

"Oceans no longer protect us from enemies that hate us," he added. "The best way to deal with this enemy is to stay on the offensive. We must not tire. We must not get weary. We must not be afraid."

The public relations effort comes after months of polls showing the president's approval ratings in decline and worries about the president's foreign policy leadership on the rise.

"There are important success stories and important progress to keep the American people informed about, and that's what we will be doing," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said.

The Bush administration has made several efforts to improve perceptions of its policy in Iraq, although most of them -- including a "public diplomacy" office in the State Department and a "global communications" office in the White House -- have been aimed at overseas audiences, particularly in the Muslim world.

With the president's approval ratings riding high for the better part of two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, a similar effort had seemed unnecessary for the folks at home.

"This administration has been strangely ineffective recently after a long, long period when it was highly disciplined, highly effective in getting its message out and being able to concentrate on what it wanted," said David Gergen, who has advised both Republican and Democratic presidents on communications strategy. "I'm not sure why that's happened -- perhaps because they are on the defensive for one of the first times in the Bush presidency."

In recent days, Bush and his top aides have repeatedly complained that the news media's "filter" of events in Iraq has focused too much on failure and not enough on success.

"The people of Iraq are free, and working toward a self-government. Step by step, normal life in Iraq is being reborn, as basic services are restored -- in some cases for the first time in decades," Rice told the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. "Throughout the country, schools and hospitals are being rebuilt. Banks are opening and a new currency, without Saddam Hussein's picture, is being prepared."

White House officials provided few specifics of what new efforts they plan to improve the American public's view of the situation in Iraq. When they announced a reorganization of policymaking for Iraq this week, they made communications one of the four central missions -- alongside counter-terrorism, political stabilization and the economy.

In coming weeks, they said, the president intends to devote his Saturday radio addresses to Iraq and give interviews to regional media around the country. Top officials are expected to be giving more speeches and interviews -- for instance, Vice President Dick Cheney will address the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Friday. Officials in Baghdad will make an effort to increase media access to events on the ground.

One Republican observer said the White House was foolish to draw attention to the new effort, saying: "They need to do what they are doing, but it was dumb to announce it. They should have just done it."

Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor at Towson University and an expert on White House communications, said the administration was slow to react to the problem in part because it had trouble hearing its critics.

"Their operation is so action-oriented, and not listening-oriented, that it takes them a long time to realize when something isn't working," Kumar said.

The key, she said, is not just to talk more, but to integrate what they say in the United States with what reporters see on the ground in Iraq. That includes the nearly daily toll of U.S. troops killed in roadside bombings and ambushes.

"There's nothing that's going to drive the story of American deaths off the TV or out of American newspapers and magazines," Kumar said. "What they need to do is find ways to get other stories there as well."

A White House communications offensive is overdue, Gergen said, but he cautioned that it would be ineffective unless the policies behind it were sound.

"Even as they move on the information side, the most important thing is what happens on the ground," he said. "That is a matter of policy and making policy effective. That really is the highest priority."

Kumar cited an aphorism that "presidents don't have press problems -- they have political problems."

"They often tend to confuse the two," she said. "It's tempting to believe that the problems are communications problems when often they are political problems associated with their policies. You have to tackle both parts -- the communications angle but also the policies."

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Times staff writers Edwin Chen and Joel Havemann contributed to this report.

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