WASHINGTON — President Bush now has what he asked for — time to sell the people and the Congress on the Iraq war.
But an extra 60 days from Congress, the addition of the talented Ed Gillespie to run the White House communications strategy, and a newly ramped-up sales pitch cannot change the underlying fact: George Bush is a poor salesman.
He's never really sold the country or Congress something it didn't already want. And when he's tried to sell something the people or the politicians didn't want, he's fallen flat.
Think of the recent battle over immigration.
Despite his long, hard push for a comprehensive overhaul of border security while providing a path to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already here, he succeeded only in insulting his own political base. In a May interview with McClatchy Newspapers, for example, he questioned the patriotism of conservatives criticizing a proposal he charged they hadn't even read.
They were outraged. The proposal died.
Or remember his long campaign to change Social Security.
The more Bush talked about his idea of diverting Social Security taxes into privately managed accounts, the more the American people lost interest.
Support dropped from 70 percent in September 2000, when Bush talked about it in his first campaign, to 58 percent during his re-election campaign in September 2004, to 46 percent as he finished a 60-day, 60-city campaign in late March 2005 to sell the plan.
Congress never brought it to a vote.
Bush has had successes, but they probably falsely inflated his sense of his sales skills. In reality, they were relatively easy sales.
He courted Ted Kennedy and won congressional approval of the No Child Left Behind Act. But getting Washington to increase the federal role in education — or anything — is hardly tough.
He won tax cuts. But seriously, who couldn't sell tax cuts, especially back when the government had a surplus of tax revenues.
He did convince both the country and the Congress to approve an invasion of Iraq. But that was at a time in 2003 when the country was still in a mood for war in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. And the pitch was based on the false claim that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States with weapons of mass destruction.
For a time early on, Bush did have the country's ear, even if his mangled syntax seldom won him many converts. And for six years he had the luxury of a Republican majority in Congress that could be browbeaten by boss Tom DeLay into doing his bidding.
But now his credibility is shot, thanks to his success at misleading the country into war. His political capital is exhausted. His dismally low approval rating has many Republicans more scared of standing with Bush than of standing against him. And he still lacks the oratorical skill of a Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy to rally the nation to any cause it doesn't already embrace.
Thus he's waging a defensive campaign just to hold onto what support he has.
He recently invited a slew of conservative media pundits to a White House session, met with congressional communications aides long ignored by the White House, and had his generals brief lawmakers of both parties about why Bush's surge strategy in Iraq needs more time.
Come September, he'll learn whether he made or lost that sale.