President Bush is taking time to explain himself, open up to the public in new ways and court Congress as he tries to breathe life into a presidency beset by sagging ratings and influence.
With a job approval rating under 40 percent, Bush, who went to his Crawford ranch for a quiet weekend, has a long way to go. Aides acknowledge it will take a while to rebuild his image, and much will depend on the outcome of the Iraq war.
White House staffers, who have long limited the president’s appearances to speeches and photo opportunities with little contact with regular people, are now inclined to let Bush be Bush.
He is talking at length. His March 21 news conference lasted nearly an hour. A Freedom House speech with questions from the audience in Washington Wednesday went on for an hour and a half.
Bush even took questions from gray-haired retirees at a senior citizens’ home recently and they asked some tough ones. More such sessions are planned.
“The president enjoys the open question-and-answer formats,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “The more we can put him in settings where people can get a better sense of his thinking and his beliefs, the better.”
Bush acknowledges mistakes in Iraq, but, to the consternation of his critics, he is not outlining any shift in his strategy there.
Democrats are not impressed by the more-open Bush. “The president can give all the speeches he wants but nothing will change the fact that his Iraq policy is wrong,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Aware that Iraqi leaders and members of the U.S. military are watching for any change in his attitude, Bush is insistent that his is the proper course for trying to bring a lasting democracy to Iraq.
“I believe 30 years from now, people are going to look back at this moment and say, thank goodness a generation of Americans stood up and said, we have faith in democracy,” he said at Freedom House.
Staff changes considered
The incoming Bush chief of staff, Josh Bolten, is considering staff changes to re-energize the White House for Bush’s remaining two years and nine months in office, a period in which he insists he will pursue his agenda as aggressively as ever.
Republican members of Congress have regularly faulted the White House for failing to listen to their advice, and with their political future up for grabs in November midterm elections, are increasingly willing to break ranks with Bush.
With that in mind, there is a greater emphasis at the White House on courting Congress, a move prompted in particular by the disastrous collapse of the Dubai ports deal last month, when Bush’s fellow Republicans revolted against him.
In recent weeks members of Congress have been invited over to the White House for sessions on immigration reform, health care, the line-item veto and other issues.
Even Bush’s opponent in the 2004 presidential election, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, and the Democratic leader in the House, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, have been seen at the White House.
Aides said Bolten, during his first day after he was announced as the new chief of staff, telephoned 30 key lawmakers to ensure they knew the White House was listening.
As part of the staff changes, under consideration is bringing in a prominent Republican, perhaps a former member of Congress such as New York Rep. Bill Paxon or former Indiana Republican Sen. Dan Coats, to act as a liaison with members of Congress, Republicans said.
First lady Laura Bush told CNN’s “Larry King Live” recently that Bush is handling the stress well having witnessed the one term of his father, former President George Bush.
“We knew what we were getting into,” she said. “Certainly, we didn’t know how extremely difficult and challenging these years would be for our country because of September 11th. But on the other hand, we knew to expect the unexpected, that that’s what happens.”