WASHINGTON — With increasing fervor, President Bush spent the final weeks of the 2006 campaign castigating Democrats as unacceptable leaders, charging that they would hand victory to terrorists and raise taxes.
But Bush returned to the White House on Tuesday and, sitting with his longtime political guru Karl Rove and other aides, watched as those same Democrats won a majority in the House for the first time in 12 years. A president who just two years ago trumpeted his cache of post-reelection political capital faces an uncomfortable choice: Will he fulfill his old pledge to be a uniter by cooperating with Democratic leaders who could help him secure a legacy for his dwindling time in office? Or will he continue to resist compromise and seek to please the business interests and social conservatives who make up the GOP base, and who might fuel a comeback for the party in 2008?
Bush will begin to answer that question today. But after six years of intense partisanship and a bruising campaign in which he charged that the Democrats' approach to Iraq would mean that "terrorists win and America loses," it appears Bush is unlikely to change his ways.
Vice President Dick Cheney signaled as much over the weekend when he was asked whether voters' distaste for the war in Iraq would spark any changes.
"Full speed ahead," the vice president told ABC.
"We're not running for office," he added. "We're doing what we think is right."
White House allies suggest there is little reason to think Bush and the Democrats will work together. Bush has tied himself closely to conservative movement leaders who bitterly disagree with Democrats for their opposition to tax cuts and to privatizing Social Security -- two of the administration's top goals.
"When we want to go up and they want to go down, we want to go right and they want to go left, there's no compromise," said anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, a close advisor to the White House.
Norquist said the Republicans' primary goal for the next two years should be making the case for GOP control -- not bipartisanship.
"Nancy Pelosi will do for the Republicans what [Bill] Clinton did for the Republicans -- become the lightning rod to explain that their congressman who they thought was a reasonable guy was really a left-wing wacko," he said.
On the issues that have been most important to Bush, he has given little hint of a willingness to compromise. He has made it clear that he would much prefer to work with his partisan brethren than to cut deals with Democrats on such issues as extending tax cuts that are due to expire and privatizing Social Security.
Democrats, too, remain skeptical of working with the White House.
Some remain angry that, after they struck an education deal in 2001 with the White House when Democrats briefly controlled the Senate, the GOP never adequately funded the plan. And Democrats remain galvanized against Bush's plan to create Social Security private accounts. Aides to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the presumed House speaker-to-be, and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the current minority leader, said Tuesday they had received no early olive-branch communiques from the White House.
Democratic lawmakers have been making their plans known, promising to pass an increase in the minimum wage and other populist measures that could gain support from some Republicans.
There were also signs that Democrats would be judicious with their newly won investigative powers.
Despite pressure from the party's liberal base to impeach Bush, Pelosi and her lieutenants have indicated they intend to be cautious with subpoenas, something that might make cooperation with the White House easier and make it harder for Republicans to paint Democrats as obstructionist.
"I don't think subpoenas should be used except as a last resort," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who as chairman of the House Government Reform Committee will have broad investigative powers. One White House official, speaking Tuesday on condition of anonymity while discussing administration policy, said there could be room for deals on energy and the president's so-called "competitiveness initiative," a proposal to boost science and math education.
Some advocates for an immigration guest-worker program predicted that House Democrats would be willing to back the White House plan. But Pelosi did not list immigration as one of her top priorities. There is also some resistance to the plan among labor unions, a strong component of the Democratic base, while many of the newly elected Democratic freshmen ran for office calling for strict border enforcement.
Norquist predicted that Bush would now govern largely through executive orders rather than working with Congress on legislation. The president could, for example, use orders to lighten the load of capital gains taxes by changing how they are calculated, Norquist said. One other possible executive order, he said, could excite conservative voters in time for the 2008 election: putting the late President Reagan on the $50 or $100 bill.