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A new Bush? Yes and no

November 09, 2006|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As President Bush launched the final two-year stretch of his presidency Wednesday, his effort to secure his legacy was encumbered by two inflexible factors: the loss of a once-supportive congressional majority, and the weight of an unpopular war that he has so far found no way to win.

Fielding questions from reporters in the White House's East Room, the president reeled off a list of domestic issues on which he thought he could find common ground with Democrats, just as he had as governor of Texas six years ago and during his brief honeymoon with Congress in the first year of his presidency -- the economy, education, energy, immigration, Social Security and Medicare.

But on Iraq, Bush warned that he was in no mood for a major change of course. "Looking at this election, the enemy is going to say, 'Well, it must mean America is going to leave.' And the answer is, no, it doesn't," he said. The goal, Bush repeated several times, remained the same: "Victory."

He said he'd work with Congress, but not on a timetable for withdrawing troops.

What lies ahead, Bush's remarks suggested, may be a two-sided presidency, one open to compromise on domestic legislation but committed to its basic strategy in Iraq and the war on terrorism -- one-half Austin, Texas, one-half Sept. 11.

"On foreign policy, the new Bush is the old Bush, and he doesn't seem likely to change much," said Stanley A. Renshon, a political scientist at the City University of New York who has written a largely admiring biography of Bush.

"On domestic affairs, he's never entirely been a 'movement' conservative; he's always been willing to go the extra mile.... But he's always been tough on defense and foreign policy, even before 9/11."

Aware that Tuesday's balloting signaled voters' desire for new approaches to the war, aides insisted Bush was willing to look at policy alternatives.

They pointed to his nomination of former CIA director Robert M. Gates to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his promise to consider the recommendations of an independent commission on the war.

"Of course the president is going to remain principled about [opposing] a massive withdrawal, just like he will about tax increases," said one aide, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the White House. "But there is a lot of room in between."

At Bush's news conference, however, when a reporter asked whether Rumsfeld's resignation would lead to "a new direction in Iraq," the president rejected the phrase.

"New direction," he mused. "Well, there's certainly going to be new leadership at the Pentagon.... Bob Gates will bring a fresh perspective."

But the president added that when he talked with the Defense Department nominee last weekend, "I found him to be of like mind. He understands that we're in a global war with these terrorists. He understands that defeat is not an option in Iraq."

When another reporter asked whether the president believed he could work with the Democrats on Iraq, he said: "Well, I think we're going to have to work with them" -- then described the job principally as persuading Democrats that his policies are right.

"We're not going to leave [Iraq] before the job is done," he said.

"And obviously we've got a lot of work to do with some members of Congress.... If the goal is success, then we can work together. If the goal is 'get out now, regardless,' then that's going to be hard to work together."

That was a polite way for Bush to step around the most important conflict between his approach to Iraq and that of many House Democrats.

The new Democratic majority may have problems of its own on Iraq, which could give the president some room to maneuver.

Officially, the Democrats campaigned for "the responsible redeployment of U.S. forces" -- a phrase Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the incoming speaker of the House, repeated on Wednesday. But they never agreed on when or where that redeployment would occur.

Some want the phrase to mean an immediate removal of most U.S. troops from Iraq, but others say they don't support a fixed timetable for withdrawal.

Administration officials say they plan to press the Democrats, now that they hold the majority, to specify what their proposals for pacifying Iraq would be. "If there are any good new options out there, we'll take them," said one aide, who asked for anonymity because he was speaking unofficially. "But most of them don't have any good new options."

Similarly, Bush challenged Democrats to come forward with proposals to bolster the finances of Social Security and Medicare -- problems whose solutions are unlikely to be politically popular because they usually require tax increases or reductions in benefits.

"This is bipartisanship of a special kind: 'We have this problem, and what do you propose to do about it?' " Renshon said of the administration's position.

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