January 25, 2007

Newspapers See a President Seeking a Last Chance

When President George Bush took the podium on January 23 for his State of the Union address, he was widely viewed as a political leader saddled with dangerously low approval ratings trying to prosecute an unpopular war.

While everyone knew his speech would include a defense of the Iraq “surge” strategy, and several new domestic policy initiatives, the big questions were about what tone the president would strike and how his remarks would be received by Congress and the public.

The first draft of an answer has arrived in the form of the front pages and headlines from nearly 300 U.S. daily newspapers. How did the media portray the speech?

The subject that eclipsed all others in the coverage is the Iraq war, and the focus of most of the headlines was the president asking, even pleading, with the nation to suspend its skepticism and support his plan.

A smaller but significant percentage of the headlines next stressed Bush’s resolve (opponents might say stubbornness) in pursuing his Iraq policy. But Bush’s domestic policy initiatives, including his plan to change health care and approach to global warming, got relatively little share of the headlines.

The front pages studied by PEJ—posted on the Newseum web site—reveal that Iraq was the primary subject in 218 of the 284 papers examined. And 105 of those headlines about Iraq stressed the idea that president was seeking one last chance to get it right in Baghdad.

“Bush implores Congress to give Iraq plan a chance,” declared the Monterey County Herald in California.“’I ask you to give it a chance to work,’” echoed the Knoxville News-Sentinel in Tennessee.

The Post-Crescent of Appleton, Wisconsin was even more succinct with “Bush: ‘Give it a chance.’’’

Another 65 headlines created the fundamental impression of Bush defying his critics and aggressively sticking to his guns, both literally and figuratively.

“Bush won’t retreat on Iraq policy” declared the Citizens’’ Voice of Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania.The Miami Herald put is similarly with its headline, “Bush unyielding on Iraq War plan.”

The idea of Bush as a beleaguered leader facing a hostile audience was the primary theme in 48 other headlines.

“Bush faces long odds,” was the assessment of The Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City. The message was the same on page 1 of the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press: “Bush’s Tough Sell.”

Even though the president did devote a significant chunk of the speech to his agenda athome, only 51 of the 284 headlines led with the domestic policy theme. And unlike Iraq, many of those focused on the idea of compromise between the White House and the new Democratic Congressional leadership.

Typical of that genre were: “Bush’s new agenda reaches across aisle” in the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times and “A new call for common ground” in the Charlotte Observer.

A little more than a dozen headlines fell into a miscellaneous category, with some of them offering a vague description of the speech that provided little sense of the event. The Cleveland Plain Dealer ended up in the miscellany basket for a headline raising the most cryptic question of the day—“Can he get what he wants?”