Bush's Strategy to Stay 'Relevant'

White House aides see a president who still gets his way.

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To his critics, it may seem a flagrant example of spin or a bizarre case of denial, but President Bush and his senior staff say he is having quite a successful final year in office. He has blocked Democratic attempts to slash funding for the Iraq war and has stopped what he considers unwise constraints on commanders in the field. He is headed for a victory on legislation to authorize eavesdropping on terrorism suspects. And he seems on the verge of getting a compromise on a housing bill to alleviate the problems of Americans who are having trouble making mortgage payments. "For the president to be this relevant this late is a pleasant surprise to us," says a senior White House official.

A big reason for Bush's continuing influence, the official argues, is that he proved he was willing to veto legislation he opposed even if it was popular, like the recent farm bill. Once he showed he was serious, Democrats backed off their plans to confront him rather than face a series of override votes they couldn't win. "It's a mistake to underestimate the institutional power of the presidency, and he has utilized that power intelligently," the senior adviser says.

There's another aspect of the White House's upbeat mood. When he travels around the country, Bush feels less "antipathy" than he used to in the crowds, along the motorcade routes, and expressed by the individuals who talk to him at his events. "He feels there has been a shift in attitudes out there that's not reflected in polling data," the aide says.

Democrats say Bush is living in a dream world if he fails to recognize how unpopular he is and how much he is dragging down his party and GOP presidential candidate John McCain. In fact, advisers to Barack Obama say Bush is a big reason why Obama's message of change resonates so widely and why the Democrats now lead the GOP in voter preference. "None of this is possible without George Bush," says Cornell Belcher, Obama's pollster.

Reinforcing his point, the latest AP-Ipsos poll, released in mid-June, found that only 29 percent of Americans approved of Bush's job performance, one of the lowest presidential ratings ever. White House officials, by the way, say they aren't sure such polls should be believed because the questions are biased and the population samples are flawed.