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Bush's New Attitude Suggests Fresh Strategy

Give-and-take with critics and audiences may help boost poll results, observers say.

January 28, 2006|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — During his reelection campaign, President Bush often appeared before audiences of Republican allies. Dissenters were denied tickets, and if they got in, they risked eviction. When he pushed his Social Security program last year, Bush usually appeared in rehearsed "conversations" with people open to his ideas.

But in recent weeks, the nation has seen a seemingly more open and free-wheeling president -- a leader willing to face, on limited occasions, potentially critical questioners.

On Thursday, he spent nearly 45 minutes taking questions from reporters. Bush parried questions about whether the White House would release photographs of the president with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. When CBS Radio News reporter Mark Knoller prefaced a follow-up question by saying, "Never mind the photographs," Bush interrupted.

"It's easy for a radio guy to say," the president quipped.

Three times in less than three weeks, Bush has ended a speech by taking questions; in at least one case, it was not an entirely friendly group. On Monday, Bush devoted nearly an hour to back-and-forth with an audience of Kansas State University students and local residents -- more time than he spent on his speech.

The president has been responding recently -- in his unique, sometimes syntax-challenged way -- to questions on the minds of Americans, and casting himself as a chief executive in command of his office and seemingly open to new ideas.

Some who watch the White House attribute the change to unfavorable poll numbers.

"There's criticism the president is isolated and doesn't understand what real people's problems are," said Frank Donatelli, a Washington lawyer and Republican strategist knowledgeable about White House political operations.

The change seemed to come about in early January, when the president spent about an hour at a White House meeting of nearly all of the living former secretaries of State and Defense. The group included Madeleine Albright, President Clinton's second secretary of State, who openly disagreed with Bush on the war in Iraq. He also met with the former heads of the Environmental Protection Agency, including critics -- Republicans among them -- who disagree with his policies on global warming.

"If you look t the first term," said Ron Kaufman, a Republican strategist with close ties to the Bush White House, "the perception was they were a closed shop, that it was hard to get input in to them, and they relied on themselves."

In the second term, he said, there was a feeling that "we should be more inclusive, more open, and more connecting with people. It gets him a wider audience. It gets him more support."

But Bush's public schedule still is replete with photo ops and shows of support.

And his recent unscripted appearances have taken place in politically friendly territory -- conservative areas in Virginia, Kentucky and Kansas. He did meet with some Democrats on Wednesday, but they were former law clerks of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., the president's Supreme Court nominee, who were invited to the White House.

Despite Bush's efforts to connect with the public, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll made public Friday found that 43% of those surveyed approved of his performance as president, his lowest rating in a Times poll.

In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll completed last week, when asked whether the statement "cares about the needs of people like you" applied to Bush, 54% said it did not and 44% said it did, a reversal from early in his tenure.

"It may be that he's lost that common touch," said Karlyn H. Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a generally conservative think tank, who conducts research on public opinion and polls.

Bush' new approach with audiences, teasing with reporters and willingness to hear critics' advice from time to time suggest he is trying to get that common touch back.

"The White House thinks the give-and-take leads to a livelier event with more energy," said Donatelli, who served as a political director in President Reagan's White House. "They're trying to show he's at ease, and that he wants to interact with regular people."

The event in Kansas was nothing if not lively. Of the 13 questions asked, six were less-than-friendly, or put Bush in an awkward position.

A Briton asked about Bush's relationship with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whom critics have called the president's "poodle." The perception among many at home, the questioner said, was, "When you say, 'Jump,' he says, 'How high?'"

Bush responded that he was "aware that that is a criticism of Tony," and that he and Blair disagreed about numerous matters but shared "core beliefs."

Such sessions allow Bush to pour on the charm. Asked by a sympathetic questioner how he coped with attacks on his character, he answered, "Faith, family and friends."

"And then," he added, "there's my man Barney, a little Scottish terrier. I say this -- and Laura will be furious at me -- he's the son I never had, you know?"

At another point, Bush thanked the students for attending. "I particularly want to thank those who've come from the Last Chance Bar," he said, referring to a local landmark. "Better than watching daytime TV, I guess."

It was in Kansas that a student who had been marching with a sign calling for Bush's impeachment managed to ask whether the president had seen the movie "Brokeback Mountain," about two cowboys who fall in love in the 1960s.

"I'll be glad to talk about ranching, but I haven't seen the movie," Bush responded.

Bush is comfortable in unscripted settings, Kaufman said. "He's himself."

If nothing else, audiences seem to enjoy it. More than 60 times Monday, the president's comments provoked laughter -- a pace nearing a laugh a minute.

A comedian might call that death. A politician calls it "connecting."

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