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President Bush Acknowledges Iraq Difficulties

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Bush is hinting at his plans for the New Year. He says if he wants to get anything done he will have to reach out more to Democrats who will soon control Congress. The president spoke to reporters at the end of a year of warfare in Iraq, and he says 2006 was tougher than he expected.

Here's NPR's David Greene.

DAVID GREENE: When 2006 began, President Bush hoped the worst in Iraq was behind him. At his State of the Union address he could count on hearing waves of applause, and he seemed to be feeling pretty good.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I am confident in our plan for victory. I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people. I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military. Fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win, and we are winning.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: Eleven months later, here's Mr. Bush looking back.

President BUSH: 2006 was a difficult year for our troops and the Iraqi people.

GREENE: And a difficult year for him. Americans' discontent with the war and Mr. Bush's handling of it cost his party control of Congress, and as for now, cost the president political capital. Right after last month's midterm elections, Mr. Bush was still trying to show some swagger. But yesterday he sounded more aware of harsh realities - approval ratings in the 30s and a tough set of war choices. He talked about stronger-than-expected enemies in Iraq.

President BUSH: And over the course of the year they had success. Their success hurt our efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild their country. It set back reconciliation. It kept Iraq's unity government and our coalition from establishing security and stability throughout the country.

GREENE: Mr. Bush is no longer insisting the U.S. is winning the war. He said the U.S. will be successful, but he made the future sound uncertain.

President BUSH: I'm not going to make predictions about what 2007 will look like in Iraq, except that it's going to require difficult choices and additional sacrifices, because the enemy is merciless and violent. I'm going to make you this promise: my administration will work with Republicans and Democrats to fashion a new way forward that can succeed in Iraq.

GREENE: And a way forward that can succeed on Capitol Hill. Several times, he used the phrase common ground, and several times he pledged to work with Democrats on legislation. The bottom line, or course, is that he has no choice.

President BUSH: You're right. The Democrats now control the House and the Senate. And therefore I will continue to work with their leadership and our own leaders, our own members, to see if we can't find common ground on key issues like Social Security or immigration.

GREENE: Immigration seems a likely starting point. Many Democrats support the Bush plan for giving illegal immigrants a shot at temporary working status. Many conservatives don't like the idea, and much will depend on the president's ability to bring them on board. He did say yesterday that working with a Democratic-controlled Congress will require the White House to take what he called a different kind of approach.

President BUSH: I was the governor of Texas with Democrat leadership in the House and the Senate, and we were able to get a lot of constructive things done for the state of Texas.

GREENE: Getting constructive things done on Capitol Hill is, of course, rare when you are a lame duck president. Mr. Bush insisted he plans to sprint to the finish in his final two years, but he didn't deny his legacy will be shaped by Iraq. His message to historians was, please don't rush to judge.

President BUSH: I'm reading about George Washington still. My attitude is, if they're still analyzing number one, 43 ought not to worry about it and just do what he thinks is right.

GREENE: The president also showed a bit of self-deprecating wit at yesterday's news conference, as CNN's Elaine Quijano was asking a question, or trying to.

Ms. ELAINE QUIJANO (CNN): This week we learned that Scooter Libby...

President BUSH: Little louder, please. Excuse me.

Ms. QUIJANO: Thank you.

President BUSH: Getting old.

Ms. QUIJANO: I understand, Mr. President. This...

President BUSH: No, you don't understand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: Tomorrow the president and Mrs. Bush will visit wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington before heading to Camp David for Christmas.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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