Holiday cheer? False hope? Whatever the reason, President Bush feels optimistic about his final 12 months in office. "We end the year in the White House a lot better than when we began the year," says a senior Bush adviser, recalling Republican angst at losing control of Congress in the midterm elections of 2006.
As they plot a comeback, White House strategists are using some familiar techniques, such as harsh attacks on majority Democrats for incompetence and weakness on national security. As usual, they hope to use the State of the Union address to frame the debate. Bush will also use executive orders and administrative actions to circumvent a hostile Congress, as President Bill Clinton did. The latest example was last week's deal with the lending industry to ease the subprime mortgage crisis. "We'll continue to try to find common ground, but the Democrats don't have much interest in that," a top White House official told me. "We can stop bad things from happening" through vetoes and building of GOP coalitions to block Democratic legislation, the official says. Bush also will emphasize foreign policy, where he has more latitude than on domestic affairs. In fact, Bush will be out of the country for long stretches in 2008—including visits to the Middle East in January, a NATO meeting in Romania in April, a Group of Eight economic summit in Japan in July, and the Beijing Olympics in August, as well as expected visits to Africa, Europe, and the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Administration officials predict the trips will show that Bush still has international stature.
But some Washington veterans deride such claims as empty talk. "We hear again and again from the White House that they've turned a corner," says a former adviser to a Republican president. "How many corners are there?... He needs some headlines—'Bush wins.' " Otherwise, the ex-adviser adds, voters will tune him out as they look to the next president for fresh leadership.