Bush seeks to bounce back

Focusing on clear agenda could be successful plan, GOP strategists say


WASHINGTON -- Ronald Reagan was "the Teflon president." They called Bill Clinton the "comeback kid." Now President Bush, the latest in a line of second-term presidents to suffer a painful fall from grace, faces a consequential test of his ability to bounce back from crisis.

For Bush, who has spent his career clinging stubbornly to consistency, the prospect of change could be distasteful - or worse, impossible. But with his popularity at rock bottom, his White House stained by scandal, his agenda stalled and his party divided after a failed Supreme Court nomination, Bush has little choice but to attempt a turnaround.

Bush is beginning an intense effort to recover his second-term power by jump-starting his agenda, including moving quickly to name a conservative to the Supreme Court and pressing for aggressive spending and tax cuts. In the coming weeks, Bush might tap some new advisers for key White House posts to bring a fresh perspective to a team exhausted and demoralized by his recent string of troubles, although he's unlikely to undertake a wholesale purge of his staff, said analysts and people close to the administration.

Strategists say Bush is right to stick to the basics that have marked his past success: Push a clear agenda, make the case for it in public and promote your successes.

"Basic blocking and tackling," said Ken Khachigian, former speechwriter to Reagan and President Richard M. Nixon.

Bush began that process Friday, sending Congress a proposal to take back $2.3 billion in spending for federal projects, and is expected to continue this week by naming a new Supreme Court pick to erase sour memories of his failed nominee, Harriet E. Miers.

"Presidents can turn things around, and quite dramatically," Khachigian said. "Bush needs to list his top 10 priorities, and he needs to [say] that the war in Iraq is priorities one through five. ... He needs to constantly and explicitly and articulately make sure the country understands the stakes in Iraq."

A staff shake-up would be the wrong move for Bush, Republican operatives said.

"This has not been a president who has made wholesale changes throughout his public life," said former Republican Rep. Bill Paxon. "He has worked with a team through good times and bad, and at the end of the day, that's been something that's served him well, and I think it will continue to serve him well."

Besides, Khachigian said, a White House purge "would show that they're sort of panicky. They need to show the opposite. They need to show self-confidence and the ability to move forward."

But there has been wide speculation that Bush might seek to replace his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., and some people close to the White House said the president would benefit from new voices on a team that has often been criticized for being too insular.

The demise of Miers' nomination for the Supreme Court, after a backlash among conservatives taken off-guard by her selection, was seen by many as evidence that Bush and his team had become too myopic to spot an obvious misstep before committing it.

Some people close to the White House say that Bush should publicly take responsibility for the CIA leak affair, although the administration is said to believe such a move could complicate Libby's legal situation.

Bush "needs to restore some of his moral authority, and I worry that he and the people around him are in denial, that they don't think they've done anything wrong," David Gergen, a veteran of Republican administrations, told CNN's Larry King on Friday. Instead of going immediately on the offensive with a fight over the court, Bush should take a page from Reagan and take responsibility for his mistakes, Gergen said.

Bush should abandon his impulse to turn inward if he wants to weather the crisis, said Leon E. Panetta, who served as Clinton's chief of staff: "If they start just hunkering down, I think that's going to be very bad. ... The president puts a big emphasis on loyalty, but this isn't about loyalty."

The sheer weight of the burden Bush is shouldering could make it difficult for him to find fresh momentum in policy victories and personnel changes.

The indictment last week of key White House player I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, was only the latest in a drumbeat of bad news for Bush. What's more worrisome for the president - just nine months after he crowed about his abundance of political capital and his intention to spend it - are a host of other factors sapping his strength, chief among them the war in Iraq and rising fuel prices.

"For the majority of Americans, he's lost their trust and their confidence, and it's very hard to get that back," said presidential scholar George C. Edwards III of Texas A & M University. "I don't think there's a silver bullet. I don't think there's an easy way out. ... He's going to be pretty dependent on the policies that are in place regarding the economy and Iraq, and we don't know how they're going to turn out."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.