Media touted Bush's "surge of momentum" as rash of problems surround White House


Following the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the news that Karl Rove would not be indicted in the CIA leak case, and other events, media figures have declared that the Bush administration is experiencing "a surge of momentum." But such assertions ignore the White House's numerous current problems.

Numerous media figures have declared that the Bush administration is experiencing "a surge of momentum" as of late, due to the recent death of Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the news that White House senior adviser Karl Rove would not be indicted in the CIA leak case, the Republicans' recent victory in a special congressional election, and President Bush's unannounced June 12 trip to Baghdad to meet with the new Iraqi prime minister. But such assertions ignore the White House's numerous current problems, including the ongoing violence in Iraq, the escalating conflict in Afghanistan, the alleged murder of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines, the administration's controversial response to the suicides of three Guantánamo Bay detainees, the slowing economy, and the trials of two former White House aides. And given those problems, the assertion that Bush is experiencing "a surge of momentum" can be a self-fulfilling prophecy -- the media ignore some serious problems in making such a declaration, contributing in the public's mind to the very momentum that they have declared Bush to have.

On the June 14 edition of CNN's American Morning, co-host Soledad O'Brien claimed that the recent "string of good news" is "giving momentum to the Bush administration." Shortly after Bush's June 14 press conference, MSNBC anchor Melissa Stark similarly asserted that "the Bush administration has gained a lot of momentum over the last week." On MSNBC News Live, anchor Randy Meier said that recent events have given Bush "a surge of momentum." Meier went on to ask his guest, Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker, "how the White House plans to capitalize and keep this momentum going."

In a similar vein, Wall Street Journal staff writer John D. McKinnon wrote in a June 14 article (subscription required) that Bush "suddenly is scoring gains on several fronts, raising a far-reaching question: Is he setting the stage for a political recovery?" And the headline to a June 13 Knight Ridder article read: "Bush is on a bit of a roll after months of unrelenting bad news."

But such claims -- that Bush has "momentum" and is "on a bit of a roll" -- overlook the numerous other problems currently swirling around the White House:

  • Ongoing violence in Iraq. Since Zarqawi's death on June 8, insurgent attacks on the U.S. military, Iraqi civilians, and Iraqi police forces have continued unabated. On June 10, a U.S. soldier was killed while on patrol in Diwaniya. A series of bombs rippled across Baghdad on June 12, killing 27 Iraqis. On June 13, dozens died during rush hour bombings in Kirkuk and an Iraqi journalist was murdered by gunmen in Fallujah. On June 14, a car bomb targeting Iraqi police killed two in Baghdad.
  • Escalating violence in Afghanistan. As reported on June 14: "Violence in Afghanistan has recently spiked, mainly in the south, as the remnants of the Taliban have been increasingly successful in their insurgency. In the past three weeks, the country has seen some of the worst fighting since the fall of the Taliban." One U.S. soldier and one coalition soldier were killed in Afghanistan on June 13 as U.S. and coalition troops prepared to launch a major offensive against Taliban militants in the country's southern provinces.
  • Haditha massacre. The military is currently investigating a company of U.S. Marines for "possible war crimes" arising from a November 19 incident in the Iraqi town of Haditha in which one soldier and 24 Iraqis died. While the company originally reported that the deaths were the result of an improvised explosive device and a subsequent firefight, eyewitnesses have alleged that the Marines murdered the civilians, including several small children.
  • Guantánamo uproar. After three detainees committed suicide in their cells on June 10 at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy Colleen P. Graffy called the suicides a "good PR move to draw attention." The comments quickly sparked an international uproar and renewed calls for the closure of the detention facility.
  • Slowing economy. A five-week retreat in stock prices has erased the 2006 gains in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the Nasdaq Composite Index. In its survey of U.S. economic conditions released on June 14, the Federal Reserve found that "[t]he economy flashed signs of slower growth heading into the summer but that didn't help alleviate inflation concerns," according to the Associated Press. Such concerns were fueled by the Department of Labor's announcements in recent days of increases in both the Consumer Price Index and the Producer Price Indexes.
  • Trials of White House aides. David Safavian, the former chief federal procurement officer for the Bush White House, is currently standing trial on charges that he lied to government investigators about his dealings with disgraced former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In October 2005, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, was indicted by the federal grand jury investigating the CIA leak case on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and false statements relating to special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation. Libby is currently preparing for trial, during which Fitzgerald may call several high-level Bush administration officials -- including Cheney -- as witnesses.

Notwithstanding these problems, Baker himself published a June 14 Post article highlighting the administration's recent "spate of good news." Following is the first paragraph of that article:

In a White House that had virtually forgotten what good news looks like, the past few weeks have been refreshing. A Republican won a much-watched special congressional election. President Bush recruited a Wall Street heavy hitter as Treasury secretary. U.S. forces killed the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. And now the architect of the Bush presidency has avoided criminal charges.

As blogger Kevin Drum noted in response to the Post article, Baker's examples of "good news" come with some important caveats:

Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. The GOP barely won a congressional election in a district that's 60% Republican. After a year of looking, the White House finally persuaded someone to become Secretary of the Treasury. They killed a terrorist they could have killed three years ago if they'd wanted to. And Bush's top aide has "avoided criminal charges."

Indeed, Republican Brian Bilbray's narrow victory over Democrat Francine Busby in California's 50th Congressional District -- which has elected Republican candidates by wide margins in the past -- was considered by many as worrisome for the GOP's prospects in the upcoming midterm elections. Drum also referred to the fact that the White House had to carefully court (subscription required) Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson before he agreed to accept the nomination as Treasury secretary. Further, Drum noted that the Bush administration passed up several opportunities to kill Zarqawi shortly before the 2003 Iraqi invasion.

From the June 14 edition of CNN's American Morning:

O'BRIEN: A string of good news giving momentum to the Bush administration. Last week, you'll recall, Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed. Then President Bush making that unexpected and unannounced trip to Baghdad to meet Iraq's new prime minister and to deliver a message -- this message -- to the Iraqi people. Listen.

From the June 14 edition of MSNBC News Live :

STARK: He has gained a lot of -- the Bush administration has gained a lot of momentum over the last week. And as you mentioned, his mood, he was joking around a lot. Is he operating from a position of strength right now for the first time in a while?


MEIER: Recent developments in Iraq and the news that top White House adviser Karl Rove is in the clear in the CIA leak case is [sic] giving the administration a surge of momentum. And that sense of momentum was very evident today as the president gave a Rose Garden news conference. Peter Baker writes about it in today's Washington Post. He joins me now. Peter, thanks for being here.

BAKER: Thank you for having me.

MEIER: Hey, Peter, let me ask you something. Clearly those images are well in the minds of Americans. We've been seeing it now since the death of Zarqawi, if you want to talk about optimistic things. Any insight, Peter, into how the White House plans to capitalize and keep this momentum going, other than things like today when we see the president addressing the nation and the press?

Posted In
Government, The Presidency & White House
Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN
Soledad O'Brien
American Morning, MSNBC Live
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