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White House gets some breathing room

In a White House that had virtually forgotten what good news looks like, the past few weeks have been refreshing.
President Bush rides in the cockpit of Air Force One on the final approach before landing in Baghdad
President Bush, left, rides in the cockpit of Air Force One during final approach before landing in Baghdad on Tuesday.Eric Draper / The White House via Reuters
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In a White House that had virtually forgotten what good news looks like, the past few weeks have been refreshing. A Republican won a much-watched special congressional election. President Bush recruited a Wall Street heavy hitter as Treasury secretary. U.S. forces killed the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. And now the architect of the Bush presidency has avoided criminal charges.

The question is whether this latest updraft in Bush's fortunes will last much longer than the president's surprise trip yesterday to Iraq. Bush took full command of the political stage with his five-hour appearance in Baghdad, just days after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and used it to showcase a new Iraqi government he hopes to turn the war over to eventually. Yet in the end, some analysts noted, it will matter only if this new government can heal societal schisms and stand up effective security forces.

For Bush, any progress at the moment is critical. Iraq has been at the heart of his political troubles, alienating voters weary of the war, unsettling congressional allies facing reelection this fall, and souring the public mood toward other initiatives by the administration. Even Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's legal problems stemmed from Iraq and the initial White House effort to justify the decision to invade.

With Zarqawi dead, a new Baghdad government in place and Rove freed from prosecutor's cross hairs, the White House hopes it can pivot to a new stage in which it is no longer on the defensive. In recent weeks, under new Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, the White House has tried to do more to set an agenda, moving aggressively into the immigration debate and agreeing to join direct talks with Iran over its nuclear program under certain conditions.

"There's a sense of motion and energy and progress on different fronts," said Peter H. Wehner, White House director of strategic initiatives. "There's more of a sense that we're shaping events, rather than being controlled by them."

The spate of positive developments may have arrested the president's months-long slide in opinion polls, at least for now. Bush's approval rating has risen from a low of 31 percent in May to 38 percent this week, according to a USA Today-Gallup poll. Zarqawi's death seems to have somewhat shored up confidence in the prospects for victory in Iraq, with 48 percent now believing the United States will win, compared with 39 percent in April. Still, a CBS News weekend poll with a smaller sample showed Bush's approval rating slipping in the past month from 35 percent to 33 percent.

How long?
"When you get into these ruts, you're always looking for anything to bounce you out and get you back on track," said Joel P. Johnson, a White House adviser to President Bill Clinton during difficult times. "They've been in a rut for so long that anything that serves to pull them back onto the road has got to feel pretty good for them. The real question is, does it last a week or is it a real sign of some sort of steadying of the process?"

The aftermath of the capture of Saddam Hussein demonstrated how transitory a single moment of victory can be. Bush got a four-point bump in Washington Post-ABC News polling after Hussein was found in December 2003, but it lasted about two months. Recognizing that, Bush orchestrated a flurry of activity on Iraq in the past few days -- including his secret trip, a Camp David war cabinet meeting and a briefing blitz on Capitol Hill -- to demonstrate that progress in Iraq means more than Zarqawi's death.

Analysts agree that after two weak Iraqi prime ministers, Bush finally has a potentially strong partner in the newly installed Nouri al-Maliki, whom he met for the first time yesterday. But the list of challenges still confronting them is daunting: sectarian strife, inadequate electricity, private militias, slow police training and so on.

"Is the insurgency defeated? No. Has it had a great reversal? Yes," said Anthony Cordesman, who studies Iraq at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "When you talk to people in Iraq on a background basis, U.S. or Iraqi, they always tell you this is going to take at least two more years to play out. That doesn't mean there isn't progress, but progress is relative."

Bush has been careful to highlight publicly the hurdles ahead and to warn that the war is nowhere near over. But for the first time this year, aides sound more upbeat about their chances of reassuring the public about the future and reversing the trajectory of the problem-plagued White House. The sight of Bush in Baghdad twinned with the news that Rove had been cleared shot a jolt of relief and optimism through the building.

"This is not a crowd that rides the highs and lows. This is a team that has been through extraordinary moments of history," said White House communications director Nicolle Wallace. "Having said that, it certainly creates momentum and enhances the confidence of the team when you can point to" examples of progress.

Rove's legal jeopardy had hung over the White House for many months as his colleagues contemplated life in the West Wing without him. Some Republican advisers outside the White House had long worried that Rove's problems were distracting him and had led to setbacks that might have been avoided if he were more fully engaged, such as the failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers or the battle over the Dubai port deal.

As part of Bolten's White House shakeup, Rove was relieved of day-to-day policy management duties to enable him to focus more on broader strategy and the midterm congressional elections.

Fellow Bush aides vigorously denied for months that Rove was distracted or was in any way responsible for the president's rocky road. But yesterday, they said he will clearly be more valuable now that the legal cloud has lifted.

‘In fine fettle’
"The other team thought they'd sacked the quarterback, and even if he came back he'd limp anyway," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a Rove confidant, who had lunch with him yesterday. "Now he's back -- no limp." Switching metaphors, Norquist compared Rove to a bull that has been poked but not killed. "Not only is he in fine fettle, not only is he not wounded, he's pricked enough to be angry."

Rove tried to play down his own development. Having flown back to Washington on Monday night from a New Hampshire speech accusing Democrats of wanting to cut and run in Iraq, he showed up at the White House in time to run yesterday's 7:30 a.m. senior staff meeting, since Bolten was in Iraq with Bush.

As he went around the table soliciting updates on various issues, he made no mention of his legal case, nor did anyone else, according to several people in the room. Norquist said it did not come up during their lunch in the West Wing mess, either, as they discussed property rights. But Norquist said he did notice aides offering congratulations to Rove as they walked through the halls of the building.

Whether or not he had been distracted before, Rove can focus his attention entirely on the fall midterm elections, which are critical to the remainder of Bush's presidency. Norquist said he believes that after beating his legal woes, Rove will want to demonstrate that he is still "the toughest guy on the block."

If Republicans hold onto both houses, then Bush aides figure they have another chance to advance key priorities and shape his legacy. If Democrats win the House, then the final two years of Bush's administration could be spent fighting rear-guard actions.

California special election
The White House took heart from the narrow victory of Brian Bilbray in a California special election to fill the House seat of fellow Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned after pleading guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes. But it required enormous resources in a traditionally GOP-friendly district, and Republicans presumably need Bush to be performing better with the public to avoid significant losses. Even with his latest bounce, a standard-bearer in the high thirties is not much of an asset.

So the White House is taking a long view, both at home and in Iraq, betting that improvement will continue and trying not to get lost in the news of the moment, good or bad.