The Final Lap May Be the Toughest Yet
Many of his longtime advisers have left. Some members of his new team are virtual strangers. And his popularity is embarrassingly low. But President Bush isn't asking for any sympathy as he begins his final 15 months in office. "He loves being president and considers it a great honor to have the job," says a Bush confidant.
Sure, Bush misses the Texas pals who moved to Washington with him seven years ago and are now in the private sector. But West Wing officials say he doesn't feel isolated or alone, as some critics suspect. Those in his current inner circle, especially Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and counselor Ed Gillespie, get along well with him and are fully committed to making his final months in office as fruitful as possible.
Actually, the whole idea of "the loneliness of command" tends to be exaggerated when it comes to America's commander in chief. Bush is the fourth president I've covered, and none of them seemed to have any big problems with staff turnover or being what Bush calls "the decider." They learned to distance themselves emotionally from the tough choices, such as sending men and women into harm's way--an important trait to have during times of adversity. "The notion that all his favored people are gone and he's sitting in the Oval Office alone is preposterous," says one of his new hires.
During his final year, Ronald Reagan found himself in a similar situation. By that time, most of the original Reaganites had left government. But Reagan picked some very talented replacements, as Bush has done with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and others. "The question is how much room will the president give these talented people for the rest of his term?" says a prominent Democrat who has been critical of Bush's past personnel choices as rewarding loyalty over competence. "We wonder if the White House political operation will pull the rug out from under them."
The Gipper ended his term by forging a historic partnership with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that paved the way for ending the Cold War. Bill Clinton moved from one senior adviser to another with ease, able to adjust to whatever happened with fortitude and focus, even his impeachment by the House in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
With the unpopular war in Iraq grinding on and the ever present possibility of another terrorist attack, Bush is in some ways dealing with tougher circumstances than Reagan or Clinton did. But if he manages to remain resilient, he may earn more respect from historians and everyday Americans than he seems to have now, even if they disagree with his policies.
Back On The Front Burner: The Benefits Of Free Trade
Key strategists for President Bush have concluded that backing for free trade has declined so much that he needs to pursue a full-fledged campaign to rebuild public support. Bush is concerned that protectionism will continue to rise as manufacturing and other jobs move overseas, adding to Americans' economic anxiety. The president believes that "all the arguments from the 1990s that successfully dominated the debate need to be made again," says an administration strategist. Bush will keep pressing his case that even though there are economic dislocations and disparities, free trade, on balance, is very good for the economy. He says it reduces prices, increases availability of consumer goods, and encourages U.S. businesses to become more competitive. Given the political climate, it will be a challenging sales job.
PHOTO OP: 10:13 a.m., October 17, Capitol Hill
President Bush's nominee for attorney general, Michael Mukasey (right), chats with Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut prior to the start of the former federal judge's confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lieberman, who introduced Mukasey, was a classmate of Mukasey's at Yale Law School.