President Bush is a politician with large ambitions and few doubts, someone not easily given to mea culpas. But in the run-up to today's inauguration, he has at least hinted at some of the lessons learned in office. From his relations with Democrats in Congress to his approach to the rest of the world, Bush has suggested he will try to strike a different tone -- without abandoning principles or policies.
Balancing those objectives could be one of the biggest challenges in a second term already facing difficult problems. His agenda includes turning Iraq into a success story, repairing relations with other nations, tackling the restructuring of Social Security and the tax code, and revising immigration policy. The question is whether he can aggressively pursue that agenda and still achieve a more accommodating climate here and abroad.
His inaugural address, aides say, will offer a broad vision of American idealism and his belief that it is the duty of this generation to spread freedom and democracy around the globe. After that will come governing, the real test to see how well he adapts the experiences of a searing first term to the battles of the second.
Presidential historian Fred I. Greenstein of Princeton University said that Bush appears to have a greater capacity for self-correction than he likes to advertise and that he has gradually grown more confident in exercising the powers of the presidency while shedding some of what Greenstein called a frat-boy style before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "I was struck on the campaign with his whole persona and his capacity to project a personality and a style," he said. "I just think he has come to fill that space."
White House senior adviser Karl Rove said of Bush: "The clearest and biggest way is he's grown to have a comfort with exercising the levers available to him. He understands the office better, he's comfortable with it. Second, he now has a series of relationships, internationally with [foreign leaders]. He knows them, understands them, he has taken the measure of them in a way you can only do if you're up close. Third, he is more acutely aware that while a president can set an agenda -- and it's vital you do so -- that history has a way of intruding on you. Things happen."
The physical signs of change are most evident in the president. His hair is grayer, and, by his admission, he is a few pounds heavier. But is he different in other, deeper ways? That is more difficult to answer, with considerable evidence that his presidency and agenda have changed more than he has. While cognizant of how others see him, Bush rejects some of the criticisms as more partisan than valid, advisers say.
Still, he has tried to project a willingness to make some changes, if his opponents are prepared to do the same. In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Bush said he regretted his inability to change the tone in Washington, saying he will try in his second term to work more successfully with Democrats in Congress but knows that now he is dealing with a different political culture than he enjoyed when he was governor of Texas.
Washington, "is tough," he said. "It's different from Austin. . . . I'm mindful of my rhetoric when it comes to the Democrats. I've really checked back." Bush paused to acknowledge he had not checked his rhetoric during the campaign, calling it a matter of political survival. He continued: "I think all of us, all of us, have got to work to set the right kind of tone. I will continue to do so."
Bush's Democratic critics will dismiss those statements as cosmetic at best, disingenuous at worst. They say it was Bush who did not make good on his 2000 campaign pledge to change the tone in Washington with polarizing policies and scorched-earth campaigns. No amount of soothing rhetoric, they argue, can overcome an ideologically driven agenda at home or unilateralist impulses abroad.
Nor is Bush saying he has softened on the principles behind his policies. When asked by CNN's John King whether his formulation that in the war against terrorism other nations are either "for us or against us" was too blunt or too black-and-white, he replied: "Not at all. We've got to win, and we've got to make it clear that people have to make a choice. I'll continue to be straightforward and plainspoken about my view that freedom is necessary for peace and that everyone deserves to be free."
When Bush takes the oath of office at noon today, his inauguration will mark a moment of renewal for his presidency, and if anything Bush's second-term agenda will be bolder and more provocative than the first. Whatever lessons Bush applies to governing in the second term, the reality is that his presidency was fundamentally transformed during his first term, reshaped by the worst terrorist attacks in the nation's history and by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he was transformed by the experience.
"You can't look that many people in the eye, the victims' mothers and dads from that day and then the family members . . . without it fundamentally altering who you are as a person and how you do the job," a senior administration official said.
Those who have worked with the White House say one of the most significant lessons Bush learned was that he was wrong in believing that he could easily transport the Texas model of bipartisan cooperation between a GOP chief executive and Democratic lawmakers.
Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said Bush and his advisers may not have appreciated the differences between Washington and Austin. "I think he now realizes the realities of Washington, D.C., which is that it's hard to forge bipartisan compromises, particularly with narrow margins," he said.
Former senator John Breaux (D-La.), whom Bush courted early in his first term and who has been selected as co-chairman of a presidential panel that will recommend changes in the tax system, blames the White House and congressional Democrats for the deep freeze in relations. "Both sides were trying to blame the other side for failure," he said.
There is deep suspicion on both sides of the relationship, with White House officials saying they have consistently tried to avoid inflammatory rhetoric without getting any credit from Democrats, who say the administration remains so ideologically driven that it diminishes any chance of real cooperation.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who broke ranks with many in his party to support all three of Bush's tax cuts, said Bush must be more flexible. "If he is able to reach out to Democrats in the development of policy rather than having his staff present it as a take-it-or-leave-it basis, it would foster more support," he said. "Last term it seemed like a lot of the time his policy people would work with me and his political people would work on me."
A White House official said Bush would try to encourage cooperation. Asked how, he replied: "You say there's a seat at the table if you want to help write the bill."
Neither side thinks the relationship can be repaired easily, but there are signs that Bush may try to start anew with some Democrats. During his first term, he had a strained relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus. Bush met with the caucus in his first two weeks as president, but the relationship deteriorated quickly.
In the summer of 2003, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), then the caucus's chairman, declined an invitation to meet with Bush after the president's trip to Africa, miffed that Bush had rebuffed the caucus. A few weeks later, at a National Urban League meeting in Pittsburgh, Bush had Cummings brought backstage. "Why did you dis me?" he recalled Bush as saying, laughing but still serious.
Cummings said he asked Bush why he had declined to meet with the caucus and said Bush replied that he was worried the members would leave the meeting and "then turn around and bad-mouth him." Since his reelection, Bush has invited the caucus to meet with him. "I have a feeling that we are going to see a Bush that is a little warmer this time," Cummings said. "But the jury is still out as to whether or not there has been a change of attitude."
Bush's most explicit statement about lessons learned came in an interview with ABC-TV's Barbara Walters when he acknowledged that his taunting challenge to the Iraqi insurgents -- "Bring 'em on" -- and his comment that he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" were at best ill-chosen.
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer recalled in an interview that he had suggested to Bush at the time that the words "bring 'em on" were "kind of blunt." Bush defended himself, saying he was only trying to make it clear that U.S. troops would not be intimidated. Now Bush says he has a different view. "I'll be more disciplined in how I say things," he told Walters, adding: "I do have to be cautious about, you know, conveying thoughts in a way maybe that doesn't send wrong impressions about our country."
Personnel changes offer another clue to Bush's thinking about a second term. After going through his first term with just one change in his Cabinet -- the dismissal of Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill -- Bush has replaced nine of 15 Cabinet heads since the election, the biggest second-term shakeup in any postwar presidency.
One interpretation is that by surrounding himself with loyalists, Bush's second administration will be more insular than the first, less open to frank advice or fresh ideas. But at least four officials with White House ties said they see the changes differently, as evidence that Bush wants to move quickly and efficiently on his agenda.
"The cohesiveness of the second-term team is even greater than the cohesiveness of the first-term team," a former administration official said. "This will sharpen the focus on the big issues and reduce the chances of a Paul O'Neill distraction. . . . If you want to get some things done, [you] want everybody on the same page of music."
Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University, noted that much of Bush's senior White House team remains intact, including Rove and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and White House counselor Dan Bartlett, even if some have changed jobs.
"You have people there who have a memory of why they're there and what they came there to do," she said. "In Reagan's second term, you lost that. People left government or, like [James A.] Baker [III], who went to Treasury. So you had people like Oliver North [a central figure in the Iran-contra scandal] able to take advantage of a vacuum. That's not a problem you're going to have."