Win, lose or draw, Bush faces unfamiliar terrain

Posted in United States | 06-Nov-06 | Author: Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David | Source: International Herald Tribune

President George W. Bush in Grand Island, Nebraska Sunday.

If the balance of political power in Washington changes on Tuesday, will President George W. Bush change with it?

From the moment Bush took office after winning the election but losing the popular vote, he has governed as if he became president by a landslide. Bad news - legislative losses, plunging approval ratings, chaos in Iraq - seems only to stiffen his resolve. Good news - a dip in the unemployment rate, the conviction of Saddam Hussein - reinforces his confidence that his polices at home and abroad are correct.

On the campaign trail, there is little to suggest that will change. "My vision is clear," Bush likes to say. Vice President Dick Cheney echoed that theme on Sunday, giving a hint of Bush's attitude when asked by ABC News whether the election would alter Bush's Iraq policy. Cheney replied that there might be some effect in Congress. But the attitude in the White House, he said, would remain "full speed ahead."

"We're not running for office," the vice president said. "We're doing what we think is right."

In recent weeks, President Bush, as well, has appeared to dig in his heels on the war in Iraq, saying he would consider changes in tactics but not strategy.

Yet with Bush facing the likelihood of a remade political landscape in Washington, even if his party holds on to both houses of Congress, the White House is sending signals that Bush is open to a shift in approach. After six years of virtually ignoring Democrats as he pressed his own party to do his bidding on Capitol Hill, Bush and his aides are charting a course that they say will take the president back to his roots as Texas governor, when he worked in a more bipartisan way with Democrats.

They are piecing together a domestic agenda that includes reviving the president's failed bid to overhaul entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, White House officials and allies of the administration said. The president has assigned Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. to spearhead the effort, and the White House says it is quietly reaching out to Democrats on Capitol Hill.

But it is not clear how much bipartisanship is possible, even if Bush proves serious about it. His approval numbers remain low, emboldening Democrats, who in any case are distrustful of him. The 2008 presidential campaign is about to start, complicating political calculations on both sides. Members of both parties say Bush will be unable to accomplish much at home until he gets Iraq under control.

Even so, Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, said Bush was determined not to focus exclusively on foreign policy, as so many presidents have done in the final two years of a second term.

"I think his hope," Bartlett said, "is that maybe, maybe we can enter into an era where the president will not be viewed as such a threatening force to Democrats who are more eager to get some accomplishments done."

Bush enters the final phase of his presidency knowing his future depends on Tuesday's election and Iraq, both of which are largely beyond his control. No matter who controls Congress, he will have a more difficult time governing.

The situation is in stark contrast to the one two years ago, when Bush sounded ebullient about his prospects for a successful second term after defeating Senator John Kerry.

"Let me put it to you this way," Bush said at the time. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it."

Today, the political capital Bush intended to spend is so vastly diminished that one longtime ally, the conservative organizer Paul M. Weyrich, estimated it at "zero" in an interview on Friday.

A sense of poignancy has set in. Jetting about the country on Air Force One, Bush has been playing hearts and gin rummy with his longtime political adviser and confidant, Karl Rove; Rove usually wins. At each stop, the men share memories of where they were two years ago, or four, reminding themselves of Texas and happier campaigns gone by.

"Any time we're on the campaign plane, it's reminiscent of past elections," Bartlett said, recounting the card games. But he insisted that Bush was looking ahead, not back: "There's no cruise control into '08 for this president. He believes that two years is a long time and a lot could get done."

Even if Republicans keep both chambers, there is universal agreement that they will do so with slimmer majorities, further reducing Bush's clout on Capitol Hill.

"Obviously, his power is waning quickly," said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, a close ally of Bush. "But it doesn't have to be that way if we have a bipartisan desire to tackle tough problems."

On the campaign trail, Bush has already been calling on Democrats to join him in reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, his signature education legislation, which was passed with bipartisan support early in his first term. But Democrats who joined him the first time are wary, said Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the chief Democratic sponsor of the bill.

"It's all going to be decided by what the president does with the budget," Kennedy said.

The last two years of a second term are challenging for any president. Bill Clinton, facing impeachment, spent most of his time traveling, devoting himself nearly exclusively to foreign policy. Harry Truman was stuck trying to explain a war on the Korean Peninsula that ended in stalemate, and it took years for his reputation to be restored.

For Bush, Iraq will loom over everything. His own aides concede they had once hoped that by Tuesday's midterm election, American troops would be steadily withdrawing from Iraq. Instead, 150,000 are still there.

"The fortunes of his last two years, in terms of his own political capital, will very much be a part of what takes place in Iraq," said Senator Mel Martinez, a Republican from Florida who was housing secretary during Bush's first term.

But one of the biggest guessing games in Washington is whether Bush will seize the opportunity to act in ways he could not with an election looming. Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote earlier this week that "the preferred European scenario - Bush hobbled - is less likely than the alternative: Bush unbound."

Bush's first decision may be whether to move on Iraq before a report is issued by a bipartisan group led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton, the former congressman from Indiana.

Whatever Bush does, on either the foreign policy or the domestic front, comes with the knowledge that the clock is ticking. As Bartlett spoke in his West Wing office Thursday afternoon, a digital "countdown clock," distributed to the president's closest aides by Joshua B. Bolten, the White House chief of staff, revealed precisely how much time, at that moment, remained in Bush's term: 809 days, 21 hours, 21 minutes and 42 seconds.