Helping His Own by Keeping Mum
President Bush doesn't like to talk publicly about the presidential campaign. He's afraid of causing problems for the Republican candidates if he says something controversial or makes a gaffe. And he is already expressing some private regret about speculating recently that Hillary Clinton would end up as the Democratic nominee. That was hardly a new thought, but it triggered a wave of speculation that Bush was trying to stoke fears of a Hillary presidency and motivate Republicans to rally against her. Bush tells friends he wasn't trying to make mischief and adds, "Maybe I shouldn't have commented at all."
But he is discussing the race with friends and advisers in private. It turns out that he realizes he did much to create the minefield that the GOP candidates have to walk through—such as the unpopular war in Iraq, the immigration proposal that angered so many conservatives, and the public's sense that the country is on the wrong track. Bush sympathizes with the GOP contenders but defends his policies and says he won't back off. One of his private observations: The length of the presidential selection process hasn't been healthy. For example, Bush says it has put even more emphasis on raising money to keep the campaigns going at optimum speed over the long haul—and that's a drag on everyone's time and energy. Bush is impressed with how hard the candidates are working, but he is concerned that it will exhaust the participants and perhaps cause many voters to lose interest.
Full Speed Ahead In Iraq
While the presidential campaign proceeds, someone still has to govern. And on at least one issue—the war in Iraq— Bush thinks he's got clear sailing ahead. Other issues have gotten more ink, especially his veto of a children's healthcare bill. But behind the scenes, Bush believes the antiwar sentiment in Congress and among many Americans won't be enough to derail his policy or force an unsatisfactory troop drawdown. "The commander in chief is in the driver's seat"—just where he should be, says a senior Bush adviser.
Looking back on recent weeks, White House insiders say Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, provided just the right tonic to keep Bush's critics in line, both through Petraeus's congressional testimony arguing that the surge of troops is working and in actually carrying out the president's policies in the war zone. "General Petraeus has done a fantastic job," says a senior U.S. official. "The trends are going in the right direction."
Darn Those Democrats And Their Pesky Spending Bills
Beyond Iraq, Bush is still hoping that he and Democratic leaders in Congress will find some way to work together for his remaining year in office. But Bush sees a troubling pattern in the stalemate over the children's health bill. He expects the Democrats to continue sending him legislation that he has pledged to veto as they attempt to make points with their liberal constituents—which derails the process of compromise and throws everyone into a partisan dither. For their part, Democrats argue that Bush is taking a harder line on spending and social issues than he ever did when the GOP controlled Congress in order to make points with his conservative base.
Bush is also troubled by the Senate's failure to move appropriations bills to his desk in a timely way. Most of them are far from passage, and they will probably be wrapped into a single massive measure at year's end. This is the same kind of delay that the Democrats complained about when the Republicans held the majority a year ago. "They are not doing their work," says a senior Bush adviser. "Nothing seems to have changed." Overall, it seems as if the chances for progress are slip-sliding away.
PHOTO OP: 4:04 p.m., October 11, the White House
First lady Laura Bush shakes hands with Ballou High School Marching Band Director Darrell Watson, while band members Lewis Franklin (left) and Kenneth Horne look on. The band members were attending a screening of Ballou, a documentary film that chronicles the award-winning band of the Washington, D.C., high school.