Bush muscles his agenda with tactical flexibility

From Social Security to Tom DeLay, he's projected steely consistency to beat the 'lame duck' rap.

The vast array of issues George W. Bush faces have enhanced his image for steadfastness - or stubbornness, depending on one's political prism.

President Bush is sticking by John Bolton, his embattled nominee for UN ambassador. He is actively supporting House Republican leader Tom DeLay, under fire on ethics. He is still touring the country to promote major changes to Social Security that include personal investment accounts, despite growing public skepticism and signals from Congress that personal accounts might not make it. He still supports oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He hasn't backed down on judicial nominees.

But Bush's carefully crafted image of constancy belies a suppleness he has long employed to his benefit on matters of policy and personnel. He reversed course on creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the 9/11 commission, after initial opposition. He also at first resisted holding elections in Iraq last January, then came around. When his intelligence bill faced trouble in last December's lame-duck Congress, Bush made the necessary concessions to gain passage.

Now, four months into his second term, the president and his team are working hard to protect his ambitious agenda, including aggressive use of the bully pulpit - and nary a public hint of doubt or acknowledgment of error.

"So far, they're sticking to their public persona of steadfastness, because they think that's their best chance to win enough to avoid being pushed into early lame-duckism," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "But behind the scenes, they're calculating carefully where to cave in."

On Social Security, for example, the White House has hinted that it might be willing to accept "add-on" accounts to Social Security - private retirement accounts formed outside the current system. Bush prefers "carve-outs," personal accounts funded by diverting payroll taxes. And some Republican House members are urging the president to stick to his guns on carve-outs; but the reality in the Senate is that the support isn't there.

At a hearing this week of the Senate Finance Committee, the first to address Social Security reform, it became clear that private accounts are unlikely to make it into that chamber's legislation. Solid opposition by Democrats and a few Republicans led some members to conclude that the best they could produce was a compromise of private accounts outside Social Security.

Whether Democrats would accept even that is highly questionable. And so Bush may well be headed for defeat on the top domestic priority of his second term, but it won't be for lack of maneuvering.

"He can bend to any political reality, and act like he's standing up straight," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "That's what he'll do on Social Security. He'll find an exit plan and blame the Democrats and never acknowledge any errors. I don't see any legislation happening."

Bush's tricky position on Tom DeLay

On Congressman DeLay, the calculation is more complicated. Bush and DeLay, both Texans, go back a long time, and their differences are well documented. So when DeLay ran into trouble, questions immediately arose over whether the White House would pull strings to ease him out of the congressional leadership, as it appeared to do when Sen. Trent Lott made a racially insensitive gaffe a few years ago.

With DeLay, the White House has decided to stand by the man - offering him public photo opportunities with the president and a ride on Air Force One. Unlike Lott, though, DeLay offers Bush an important service in return: his skill as a legislative maneuverer, particularly at a time when Bush's agenda is struggling, and a hard-wired connection to the religious conservative base of the Republican Party.

Again, it goes back to the lame-duck issue: DeLay can help Bush forestall what presidential scholars say is an inevitable waning of power as a presidency draw to a close.

So in some ways, Bush needs DeLay more than vice versa. The risk for Bush is that if DeLay goes down, it will tarnish the president.

"Bush is kind of caught here," says Professor Buchanan. "It's not just that he's being stubborn; it's that he can't see another way out."

Political straits on Bolton and energy

The Bolton nomination is a controversy that, at heart, swirls around differences over the conduct of foreign policy - not Bolton's abrasive style. The president knew how Bolton operated when he nominated him, and in fact, was chosen just for that reason, to take on the United Nations, not fit in, analysts say.

And again, if Bolton ultimately fails to be nominated, Bush wins for losing: He has stuck by his man, and kept his conservative base happy.

Perhaps one of Bush's trickiest issues is energy. As fuel prices have soared, his approval ratings have sagged. Bush has also acknowledged that his energy plan would not have any immediate impact on the price of gas, so he risks leaving an impression of not trying to alleviate Americans' hardship at the pumps. At an East Room press conference Thursday night, still to come at time of writing, the president was to focus on both energy and Social Security. It would be a prime-time effort to squeeze maximum use of his bully pulpit.

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