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
By KAREN TUMULTY, MIKE ALLEN
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 √©lite 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.
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