January 1, 2006  

To President Bush

The series of four speeches he made, along with the release of the National Security Council “Victory Strategy,” may or may not achieve the immediate goal of pumping up his poll numbers, but they represent an overdue step: explaining to the American people, in an adult manner, what the war is about, who the enemy is, how we’re trying to defeat the enemy and how tough a job this is proving to be. A president in wartime is never simply a commander in chief but more importantly the political leader of all Americans.

At the same time, we regard this laurel as a conditional award: The task of keeping the public engaged in this war is not a job that ended with last month’s election in Iraq. Although Bush attempted to change the subject from withdrawal to victory, he can expect the doubts — quite natural doubts, in a democracy — about the wisdom of our strategy and our sacrifice to persist. In his speeches, the president often made reference to the challenges faced by the American Founders and by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. He thereby sets himself a high standard, but a correct one.

George W. Bush has no more elections to win. His personal popularity only matters to the extent that he can lead — all Americans, not 51 percent — effectively in a time of trial. He will bequeath an unfinished job to his successor. History will judge him, in large part, by whether in his remaining three years he can create a sense that Bush’s war is America’s war.