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Cheney and rove lose importance in whitehouse

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Sunday, Dec. 11, 2005
His Search For A New Groove
The President has had a dreadful year, and his approval ratings are anemic. What Bush is doing to try to reverse his second-term slump

The Yuletide decorations at the¬ White House are simpler this year. The gaudy tinsel and the 155,000 lights of 2004 have given way to a more natural look of Christmas trees decorated with white lilies and pink roses that are replaced as they wilt. Guests at the holiday parties are noticing a different tone to George Bush too. He has never liked the 26 receptions, the thousands of punishing or limp handshakes, the graceless requests for souvenir cuff links with the presidential seal. But at some of the smaller gatherings this year, Bush has freed himself from the photo line to circulate with an intensity his friends haven't seen before. An adviser who encountered Bush on one of these reconnaissance missions through the Red Room last week tells TIME, "He's listening a little more because he's looking for something new. He's looking for ideas. He wants to hear what people are saying, because something might strike him as worth following up on."

No one has written a playbook for the President who is trying to stop a second-term slump before it becomes a long slide to oblivion. The most successful ones in modern times have gone about it in different ways, depending on the forces that were arrayed against them. Dwight Eisenhower, confronting a hostile Congress, made his mark with his veto pen. Ronald Reagan rid his White House of the aides whose incompetence and duplicity had produced Iran-contra, and engaged the Soviet foe he had once called an "evil empire." After Bill Clinton got past impeachment, he did what he could by Executive Order and picked his shots with Republicans on Capitol Hill--for instance, demanding more education spending in must-pass bills at the end of the year--boosting his popularity at their expense.

But recalibration and retrenchment do not come naturally to this President. Bush recently rejected a draft of an economic speech because it didn't mention his now dead proposal to restructure Social Security. He is still steamed because his nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers for the Supreme Count imploded; he vented about it to African-American leaders who met with him last week to discuss racial issues and Katrina disaster relief--prompting one of them to gently remind him that it was not African Americans but conservative Republicans who were her undoing. His reading of late has tended toward military history, which offers the comfort that other wartime Presidents, notably Harry Truman, endured scathing criticism by their contemporaries only to be redeemed by history.

Advisers and friends say Bush has not let go of his faith in himself or his patented upbeat style. He still delights in nicknames: backstage last week before his big speech on Iraq, Bush called Richard Haass, chairman of the august Council on Foreign Relations, "Sheriff"--a play on the title of Haass's book, The Reluctant Sheriff. Pals visiting from Midland, Texas, this month thought they were there to buck up their old friend; instead, they found him relaxed and unperturbed. "The President believes he's serving at this time for a reason--that his instincts, experience and convictions are suited for big challenges," says Austin-based strategist Mark McKinnon. Or as Bush has put it, the job is "to make a difference, not to mark time."

But he may have done worse than mark time in the first year of his second term; he may have lost it--to scandal, to the collapse of his ambitious domestic-policy gambit on Social Security, to Administration incompetence in the face of a natural disaster and to mounting casualties in a war that most Americans now regard as a mistake. The public's trust in Bush's judgment and character has sunk, threatening both his legacy and the Republican hold on Congress.

White House strategists believe they have ended the slide in Bush's approval ratings, which lately have been topping 40% again. "It's time for the Bush comeback story!" one coached TIME for this article. "The perfect storm has receded. We have better news in Iraq, oil prices are down, and Katrina has kind of fallen off the radar screen in terms of public concern." But they know that Bush is running short of time to salvage his remaining three years. The focus will soon shift to the 2006 midterm elections and then to the race to replace him in 2008. And a midterm election that doesn't go the Republicans' way would draw a bright line of demarcation between a presidency and a lame-duck Administration.

The plan is to make January a critical month in what the President's aides hope will be a turning-point year. The White House expects a quick victory on Bush's Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, and the State of the Union speech will nod to big goals. But when it comes to fresh and concrete ideas, the list of what Bush will actually try to accomplish in 2006 is so modest that one bewildered Republican adviser calls it "an insult to incrementalism."

White House advisers tell TIME that the agenda for 2006 is in flux and that senior aide Karl Rove is still cooking up ideas. But the initiatives they have settled on sound more like Clinton's brand of small-bore governance: computerizing medical records; making it easier for workers to take their health benefits with them when they leave a job and--an idea that captured Bush's imagination in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina--giving a boost to Catholic and other private schools as an alternative for inner-city children. While Bush still hopes to sign an immigration bill by summer and plans to talk a lot about the subject next year, his program to offer temporary legal status to illegal immigrant workers remains a tough sell with the conservatives in Congress.

Bush's team seems tired and short on inspiration. Advisers anticipate a high-profile departure or two from the White House staff before February. But the President dismisses the idea that any sort of housecleaning is in order. "Who do you think is talking?" he asks when he hears of public speculation about firings and resignations in his White House. Having escaped at least the first round of the CIA-leak investigation without being indicted, Rove, say associates, has taken the lead in crafting next year's agenda, brainstorming not only within the White House but also with lobbyists, think-tank experts, lawmakers and former officials of both the Reagan and the George H.W. Bush administrations. Friends of Rove, however, say that he feels bruised by the leak probe and that his relationship with his boss has never fully recovered from the fact that early in the investigation, he underplayed his role as a source for the journalists who revealed CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity. Says a Bush confidant: "The relationship is not bad, just changed."

Another sign of the investigation's toll on the White House operation is how much less Vice President Dick Cheney, 64, is seen and felt in the West Wing these days. The indictment of his former top aide, Scooter Libby, "hit him hard. Scooter was like a brother and a policy soul mate," says a Cheney friend. The Vice President once worked the same famously long hours as Rove and chief of staff Andrew Card, but now he has scaled back his White House schedule to being there "when he needs to be," the friend says, and otherwise keeps a regimen that is "a little more reflective of his age, station and health." Yet Cheney is still a big draw with the Republican base. The White House says he will have a heavy run of speeches on Iraq and economic policy over the next two months and will have a grueling fund-raising schedule for the midterm elections.

Whatever shifts may be taking place within the inner circle, the Bush operation remains frustratingly insular to its Republican allies outside the White House. When Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter wanted to have a private word with the President last week about the extension of the Patriot Act, he put on a tuxedo and waited in line at one of the White House Christmas parties. But Specter denies any suggestion that Bush has been distant and says the President remains confident and sunny, needling Specter about his raggedy trench coat during a trip to Pennsylvania: "Arlen, we're going to have to upgrade your wardrobe."

In any case, the White House is making an effort to smooth its often tense relations with Republicans on Capitol Hill. G.O.P. congressional aides say their White House counterparts are consulting them for the first time in five years. And Bush's speech last week touting a resurgent economy came only days after House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate majority leader Bill Frist privately implored Card and Bush counselor Dan Bartlett for more cheerleading from the White House. "Offense," says a top congressional aide. "We want him to play offense."

Nowhere is that more important than in confronting the nation's growing doubts about the Iraq war. Republicans are worried that Bush's message has been long on showmanship and short on facts. White House officials insist that 2006 will be "a transitional year" in Iraq, and have made it clear they will push Iraqi officials to swiftly form a government after this week's elections. Bush's gargantuan PLAN FOR VICTORY banner was not there when Bush went before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington last week, nor did the event have the rapturous crowd that is the trademark of this White House's advance team. Indeed, Bush's appearance was so hastily arranged that the organization had trouble filling the seats and ended up inviting members by e-mail to bring a friend. But the speech itself, a sober view of what it will take to revive the Iraqi economy, was well received by a group that represents the élite in the foreign-affairs establishment. "I told him I thought it was a good speech. The White House is no longer in the triumphalist stage," says council president Haass, a former Administration official who has criticized the Iraq invasion as a "war of choice."

However improbable the odds at this point or modest his short-term goals, aides say, Bush still subscribes to Rove's long-held dream that his will be the transformational presidency that lays the groundwork for a Republican majority that can endure, as Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition did, for a half-century or more. Once he gets past the midterm elections, Bush plans to introduce a concept that, if anything, is even more ambitious than his failed Social Security plan: a grand overhaul that would include not only that program but Medicare and Medicaid as well. Says strategist McKinnon: "He knows that part of what he brings to the presidency is an ability and commitment to chart a long course under public pressure." The question that will be answered in the coming year is whether America still believes in George Bush enough to follow.

Copyright © 2005 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

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Appeals court upheld ruling against reporters over leak { February 15 2005 }
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Bush admits cia leak came from whitehouse { July 12 2007 }
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Cheney may use executive privilege { October 29 2005 }
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Cheney staff focus of probe { February 17 2004 }
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Cia name leak from whitehouse { September 30 2003 }
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Colleague says armitage was cia leak source { August 29 2006 }
Did rove blow spooks cover { September 16 2003 }
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Fitzgerald calls new grand jury after woodward testimony { November 19 2005 }
Judith freed to testify about source lewis libby { September 30 2005 }
Judith miller cant remember where name came from { October 16 2005 }
Judith miller retires from the times
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Leaders express outrage for libby commuted sentence { July 3 2007 }
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Libby lawyer told miller to clear scooter libby { October 16 2005 }
Libby may have hidden cheney role { November 13 2005 }
Libby perjury worse than lewinsky perjury
Libby retains 5th amendment by avoiding pardon { July 3 2007 }
Libby says white house superiors approved leak { February 9 2006 }
Libby scapegoated to protect karl rove { January 24 2007 }
Libby trial delayed right after 2006 elections { February 4 2006 }
Matthew cooper testify after rove lawyers maneuvering { July 7 2005 }
Mcclellan cant clear cheney in cia leak case { June 20 2008 }
Memo central to leak delivered to powell { July 21 2005 }
Nbc russert rebuts libby testimony { February 7 2007 }
New tork times reporter jailed for concealing leak { July 7 2005 }
New york times reporter given top security clearance { October 16 2005 }
Novak claims book was source of leak { August 2 2005 }
Novak points to cia { October 1 2003 }
Novak pokes fun at cia leak
Novak wont give up source { October 1 2003 }
Pat buchanan says neocons behind whole thing { July 15 2005 }
Powell gives testimony to grand jury
Press secretary says bush behind leak { October 2007 }
Prison fines await those leak cia identities
Probe exposing cia identity { September 29 2003 }
Prosecutor investigating coverup of leak { July 27 2005 }
Prosecutors question Bush on CIA name leak { June 25 2004 }
Reporter held in contempt
Rove and libby worked damage control { July 22 2005 }
Rove blamed libby to jury { October 20 2005 }
Rove called to testify 5th time { April 27 2006 }
Rove confirmed plame indirectly lawyer says { July 15 2005 }
Rove emailed security official about matthew cooper { July 11 2003 }
Rove fight escalates { July 15 2005 }
Rove legal team furious efforts to convince prosecutor { October 27 2005 }
Rove mclellan interviewed cia probe { October 23 2003 }
Rove told cooper wilsons wife works for agency { July 11 2005 }
Rove wont face indictment in cia leak case { June 13 2006 }
Story from two senior whitehouse employees
Time magazine talked to rove for plane story
Time reporters in contempt of court for cia leak
Time reporters says he first learned of plame from rove { July 18 2005 }
Valerie plame does vanity fair spread { December 3 2003 }
Whitehouse press secretary contradicts libby { December 2007 }
Wilson suggested rove leaked { September 30 2003 }
Woodward attacked by liberals { November 18 2005 }
Woodward eyed after calling fitzgerald overzealous { November 17 2005 }
Woodward was told of plame before leak { November 16 2005 }

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