George W. Bush made his final appearance at the annual President's Dinner in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, delivering an address that symbolized, in many ways, just how politically prickly his tenure has become.
The president was greeted by a crowd of several thousand formally-dressed GOP fundraisers, lobbyists, and staffers. He offered an optimistic diagnosis about the state of his party, suggesting that concern over potential electoral losses would fade away with time. And he took swipes at Barack Obama, but never by name.
"The other side talks a lot about hope, and that sums up their Iraq policy pretty well," Bush said. "They want to retreat from Iraq and hope nothing bad happens. Wishful thinking is no way to fight a war."
He even, to standing applause, assured attendees that he was not entrenched in lame-duck status. "My energy is up, my spirits are high, and I am going to finish this job -- strong!" he said, pumping his fist.
But there were ample signs that Bush was long removed from his position as the belle of the ball. Dozens of seats at the event were left vacant and the press stand was nearly empty, with only a dozen or so pool reporters. One official suggested that the host committee -- hoping to raise money for the Republican congressional committees - had fallen short of past year totals (though $21.5 million for GOP House and Senate candidates wasn't too shabby). And while the President received a warm welcome inside the Washington Convention Center, the dynamics, attendees noted, were not the same outside of D.C.
"This is the in-town stuff: members, their friends and their donors" said one House GOP leadership aide when asked if people were upset with the Bush. "You don't use the president on the literature you send out of town."
Bush's speech was rife with its usual red meat. He started off by acknowledging that, at one point in time, he and current Republican nominee John McCain were in political conflict. But, he added, "When the American people focus on what matters in their future, they are going to send Republican candidates to the House, Republican candidates to the Senate, and John McCain to the White House."'
From there, Bush went through a laundry list of issues in which McCain had earned his conservative stripes, including energy policy, the Iraq war, tax cuts, and judicial appointments. In each case, the Arizona Republican was touted as the inheritor of the Bush agenda.
"We delivered the largest tax cuts since Ronald Reagan was president of the United States," said the president, without acknowledging that McCain once opposed the measure. "If you want to keep your taxes low and stop wasteful spending, elect John McCain."
And yet, for all the advocacy Bush was doing on McCain's behalf, the gratitude was not reciprocated. A several-minute-long video montage touting the Senator's campaign followed the President's speech. The spot included several shots of the flag, Ronald Reagan speeches, and John McCain on the stump -- but there was not a single shot of Bush, nor a mention of his name.
Bush wasn't the only national figure in attendance whose job performance has him on shaky ground. Reps. John Boehner and Tom Cole, as well as Sens. John Ensign and Mitch McConnell, all major GOP leadership figures, were introduced to half-hearted applause. (A bigger ovation, in fact, awaited Charlie Daniels, the famed country singer, who came on stage with an oversized cowboy hat and serenaded the crowd with a patriotic diddy.)
And like Bush before them, these officials also sought to put a good face on what is, at this point in time, a politically dicey situation.
"As you all know we've been dealt a few rough hands these past years," said Boehner, "but I'm here to tell you that we will continue fight strongly for our beliefs and causes."