Bush's new keyword: 'adjust'
On Iraq, torture policy, and tax system overhaul, he demonstrates more flexibility.
WASHINGTON — Under the klieg lights of a prime-time press conference, George W. Bush once famously could not recall any mistakes he had made as president. To his critics, the April 2004 moment cemented the notion that he is unreflective about his policies, an immovable object in the face of facts.
The reality, however, is different - as demonstrated by a wave of developments. Most striking has been his series of speeches on Iraq in the run-up to Thursday's elections there, culminating in Wednesday's fourth and final address. The M-word - mistake - is still not a part of his vocabulary, but the word "adjust" is, and is now sprinkled throughout his speeches.
"We listened, and we adjusted our approach," he said in one example Monday, explaining how the plan for transition to Iraqi self-government was forged.
Throughout Washington there are other signs of course correction: In the 2002 No Child Left Behind education reform, whose requirements for progress have created anxiety in some states and cities, certain types of waivers are now allowed. On the hotly debated question of torture policy, which at press time remained in flux, the Bush administration has backed away from a veto threat over an amendment to restrict techniques used by Americans during interrogations. Social Security reform and an overhaul of the tax system have been set aside for now.
"The administration knows how to respond to political pressure with the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast," says Marshall Wittmann, a former Republican strategist and now a fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "You've seen it on a number of things - No Child Left Behind, prescription drugs, homeland security."
At times, the larger principles remain firm - such as pressing ahead in Iraq, or pushing for improved educational performance - while the details change. In other instances, there is a wholesale course correction. When it became clear that Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court was damaging the president's support among his political base, she was summarily dropped. Ditto Bernard Kerik, when his nomination to run the Department of Homeland Security ran into a buzz saw of multiple ethical allegations.
Some of Bush's former positions even seem hard to believe - such as his opposition to the establishment of a department of homeland security, a 9/11 commission, and a new Medicare entitlement providing prescription drugs for seniors.
But on Iraq, the central project of Bush's presidency, the steady erosion of public support had clearly dragged down the president's overall job approval ratings, which in turn had muted his ability to tackle other major aspects of his agenda. So a major fix was needed, at least in how the president explained his Iraq policy to the public, analysts say.
"He seems to have a more reality-based approach to Iraq," says Mr. Wittmann. "What has been notable about the president's speeches in the last couple of weeks is that they implicitly acknowledge that there have been problems and that he has established a course correction."
After the speech on Monday, to the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia, the president even took questions from the audience - a rare departure. In another rarity for a wartime president, he provided a death toll - about 30,000 - when asked how many Iraqis had died from war-related causes since the US-led invasion.
Several recent major polls have shown a bump in Bush's job approval ratings - now in the low 40s, up from the 30s.
"Just as a number of factors drove the polls down, several different factors are driving them up," says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "The more specific and more measured discussion of Iraq is a factor, the continuing good news on the economy is a factor, and declining gas prices is a factor."
One question hovering over this burgeoning image of tactical flexibility is where Vice President Cheney fits in. It is he, some analysts say, who has been the true immovable object of the Bush White House, not the president. While Bush's Iraq rhetoric has shifted, Mr. Cheney's hasn't. It may be that, after five years in office, the president is less reliant on Cheney - especially after it was revealed that he played a role in the embarrassing Valerie Plame scandal, in which the identity of a CIA operative was leaked to the press.
"My reading of the tea leaves is that they've put [Cheney] out to defend himself, and if he succeeds, fine, and if he doesn't, fine, but that he's really on his own now, isolated by the departure of [his chief of staff, Scooter] Libby," says Paul Light, a political scientist at New York University and an expert on the vice presidency.