WASHINGTON -- President Bush's remarkable recent press conference was aimed at telling voters to focus front and center on the importance of the war in Iraq even as other GOP leaders were hoping to get voters to think more about their pocketbooks.
Vice President Cheney was asked on the Fox TV network if he wishes voters would pay more attention to what the administration argues is a booming economy. Absolutely, the No. 2 White House man said, adding that he devotes half of each campaign speech he makes day after day talking about that very issue.
In an interview with The Concord Monitor (a New Hampshire newspaper to which every wannabe presidential candidate must pay homage), Senate GOP leader Bill Frist said Republicans have to get Americans' attention off Iraq and terror and on "pocketbook issues."
Frist, who is retiring this year from the Senate, possibly to run an uphill race for president in 2008, said the media is not covering the positive things done by Congress. He cited tax cuts and the lower gas prices, which he said are a result of the energy bill passed by Congress last year, although many economists would disagree.
For thousands of laid-off and downsized Americans, especially in the auto industry, being asked to be appreciative of a booming economy and, accordingly, pleased with Congress might seem counterproductive. Congress currently has the support of about one out of every six Americans.
But this White House is happy touting the idea that a rising stock market lifts all sailboats and wants more Americans to be grateful to the president for their 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, even though most of the money went to the wealthiest citizens and contributed to our $8.6 trillion debt.
Thus even some Republicans were confused by the president's press conference in which he urged Americans to be patient in thinking about the violence in Iraq as it moves closer to all-out civil war, a press conference in which he assured us we are "winning" the war.
"Absolutely, we're winning," Bush said. "People now understand the stakes. We're winning, and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done."
But he also conceded that October was the deadliest month in the past year for American soldiers in Iraq. So how will we know when we've won? And how long will it take? Will Americans be caught in the middle of a sectarian war like an inept referee in a boxing ring?
The president says that will not happen, but does not say how it will be prevented. He concedes that victory will take a long time to achieve and that will mean that more American soldiers will die and be maimed. But he wants no "artificial" deadlines for withdrawal and no spending limits on Iraq. (It is costing $380,000 a minute to stay in Iraq, and Baghdad still doesn't have reliable electricity.)
Bush has never said how long he thinks it will take to make Iraq a firm "ally in the war on terror" or secure its borders so that terrorists do not make it a safe haven.
Trying to convince Americans how important it is to win in Iraq, but not telling them how it can be done, Bush insisted that his new policy of ordering the Iraqi government to set "benchmarks" for progress is not the same as setting timetables. (The current Iraqi leader, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose supporters help foment violence, defiantly said that only the Iraqi people who elected him "have the right to make time limitations or amendments.")
There is no end in sight in Iraq; there is no sure-fire way to win. For the moment we must put our faith in the bipartisan commission named to assess the situation in Iraq that is headed by two well-respected statesmen -- former Secretary of State James Baker and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton. We hope they come up with good advice and that Bush takes it.
During his press conference, Bush said only two things about the U.S. economy. He said that if Democrats control Congress they would raise taxes by preventing his tax cuts from becoming permanent. And he said the Nov. 7 election is a referendum on Iraq and on which party has a plan to continue economic growth.
Frist, the outgoing senator from Tennessee, must have shuddered. He has found, he says, two weeks before Americans decide if Republicans continue to control Congress, that the electorate is "worried, discontented and confused."
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.