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For Bush, Burdens of Office Multiply

As foreign and domestic issues mount, advisors say a disciplined White House is up to the tasks.

January 26, 2003|Maura Reynolds and Doyle mcManus | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush appears to have plenty on his plate these days. A global war on terrorism. Confrontation with Iraq. Crisis with North Korea.

Now, Bush and his advisors are heaping on more: a controversial $670-billion tax cut plan and an ambitious proposal for Medicare reform, which is expected to be a central focus of his third State of the Union address Tuesday.

Is this White House biting off more than it can chew?

"The risk is not to overreach," acknowledged White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "If you overreach, you can have a spectacular fall."

From the outside, the Bush presidency looks like it should be overburdened by foreign crises, not to mention the domestic goals it has chosen to tackle. Veterans of previous administrations say it's hard for the handful of top White House aides to handle more than one crisis at once.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 604 words Type of Material: Correction
State of the Union -- An article Sunday in Section A incorrectly described this week's State of the Union address as President Bush's third. It was his second.

"Historically, the White House can juggle one ball really well," said David Gergen, who worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations and has written a book on White House management. "A really good White House -- and this is a really good one -- can juggle two. If there are four or five, one usually falls."

"I wish it were only four or five balls," Bush's chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., said wryly. But he and the rest of the White House staff insist they have figured out how to keep all the balls in the air.

How? "We have a very disciplined staff," Card said.

Some observers think they already detect signs of strain. But inside the West Wing, even with the State of the Union address in its final editing stage, there's little obvious indication of overload. Unlike television's "The West Wing," White House visitors see no signs of frantically bustling aides, unanswered telephones or flared tempers.

Little appears to upset what one top aide calls the "predictable cadence" of a typical White House day.

"There hasn't been that much difference between now and six months ago," the aide said.

The president gets to work around 7 a.m. His first hour is spent reviewing his schedule and making phone calls to world leaders. He has a CIA briefing at 8 a.m., and an FBI briefing at 8:30. Most days he then goes to the Situation Room to meet with the National Security Council and his top foreign policy advisors: national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Plenty of Meetings

The rest of the president's day is less structured but filled with meetings. A few are public: a speech on a policy issue or ceremonies to honor exemplary Americans. Others are private: policy discussions with aides, personnel meetings to make new hires.

Bush's management style is to make strategic decisions and then delegate details to staff. As a result, aides say, he is very particular about the people he brings into his administration and spends a lot of time in personnel deliberations.

Bush wraps up his day at 6 p.m., retiring to his personal quarters with a briefing book on the next day's activities. The homework takes about an hour a night.

There is little variation in the schedule. Bush demands that meetings start and end on time. That's one reason the White House is able to handle the current workload, Fleischer said.

"Because he is disciplined and always on time, it forces it down through the system. Everybody else has to be disciplined, to get their work done and do it on time," he said. "No excuses."

Aides work an hour or two longer than Bush -- usually starting between 6:30 and 7 a.m. and ending between 7 and 8 in the evening. Bush has an intelligence briefing on Saturdays. But other than that, even now, weekends for him and his staff are usually free.

"I have to make sure he has time to eat, sleep and be merry," said Card, who controls the president's schedule. "Because if he doesn't have time to eat, sleep and be merry, his decisions might not be as good as they might otherwise be."

Staff members say this pace was set a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and has not changed despite the brewing war with Iraq and confrontation with North Korea. They insist it is sustainable, even if the country soon finds itself at war.

"We had a kind of baptism by fire because of the recount," said one top aide, referring to the voting problems in Florida that delayed the outcome of the presidential election in 2000. "We've never really had smooth sailing. The president's here to do good, big things. We've got a pretty seasoned, now-veteran team with a lot of the original people still here who have been tested."

That's a second reason White House aides say they can handle the heavy workload -- there has been only moderate staff turnover in the administration, historically about average for a White House at the two-year mark. The highest-level departure has been former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, who was forced to leave over policy differences, not because of burnout.

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