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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Bush Revisited

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 30, 2004; 10:43 AM

President Bush's track record, character and leadership style are being dissected in a barrage of big profiles and analyses by major news organizations on the eve of the Republican convention. He's also granted several interviews.

This special edition of White House Briefing provides an overview of the coverage and its themes.

One consistent theme is that the war in Iraq -- not the war on terror more generally -- is the defining act of his presidency. And the public's verdict on that war is decidedly mixed.

On the domestic side, Bush's major legacy is by all accounts the massive tax cuts package that he promised in the last campaign -- and delivered. But the cut led to enormous deficits while not stimulating a full-fledged economic recovery.

In describing his character, profilers consistently see Bush as a risk-taker who acts decisively and never looks back. Supporters see this as strength, critics see this as foolishness.

Looking at his leadership style, reporters conclude that while Bush is indeed assertive, he also often lacks curiosity and patience and has little interest in details.

Several also report that he has a private, darker side, describing him as prickly and cranky, particularly at the end of the day.

News analysts agree that Bush has turned out to be an undeniably consequential president, more radical and more forceful than anyone could have imagined -- although his legacy could be erased quickly.

And you read a lot about the influence of President Bush's father. Bush outdid his father in Iraq and now hopes to win the second term that his father was denied. If he accomplishes that, he will have outstripped the father who eclipsed him so soundly for decades -- a huge psychological milestone.

But just like his father, he is dealing with a precipitous fall in his popularity ratings. And while he intentionally rejected his father's ways of doing things, he may now suffer the same fate.

There's no question that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were the defining event of the Bush presidency. And the Republican Party today kicks off a convention that is being carefully choreographed to encourage voters to make this election a referendum on the war on terror.

But there's much more to the past four years -- and this president -- than Sept. 11.

Newsweek

Evan Thomas, Tamara Lipper and Rebecca Sinderbrand write: "President Bush has shown great sureness of purpose, even courage, rallying his country from its worst day ever. He has faced down fear, disciplined what he once jokingly described to his sister Doro as his 'inner fat boy,' and emerged resolute in his life and manner.

"But not without struggle and, almost surely, at a cost. Behind his calm and outward patience there is an edginess that can seem prickly, resentful. At times, he appears so determined to stay the course and stick to his convictions that he seems too rigid, fixed in his ways, unable to adjust. One cannot help but wonder: At some level, is he afraid that the slightest wavering might fatally crack his whole hard-earned, painfully constructed persona? Is admitting a mistake for Bush like an ex-drunk's taking just one drink? Bush can be empathetic, emotional and even (dread word) sensitive. But he can also be surly and impatient with weakness. At these moments, he seems more dogged than enlightened, his life more a triumph of will than of understanding."

Here are excerpts from Bush's interview with Newsweek.

Time Magazine

Nancy Gibbs and John F. Dickerson write that "if Kerry's test in Boston was to show voters that he is not weak, Bush's task at the Republican Convention in New York City this week is to show that he is not wrong, that his strength comes not from a six-gun temperament but from judgment that has matured through three years of hard testing. His vital audience is not that portion of the electorate that sees him as a savior, nor is it the inflamed opposition that calls him a liar and a zealot. He needs to reach the voters who are unsure about either voting for him or voting at all; who don't think he lied but may think he made mistakes; who like his manner but question his judgment; who are glad Saddam is gone but wonder if the price was too high; who wonder whether John Kerry really knows his mind but also whether George Bush ever opens his. Those voters aren't looking for an apology. They do need to see the President growing in the job or get a better idea of where he is going, because his task is not about to get any easier."

Here are excerpts from Bush's interview with Time. From the interview:

"I learned it's real hard to put people into combat. The consequences of war are death. That's hard. I realize that the decisions I have made have put people in harm's way. It's just a hard part of the job, even when you know you're right. It hits you all the time."

U.S. News

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in: "As the president prepares to accept renomination at the Republican National Convention this week, voters are sharply divided over whether Bush's sunny and determined outlook is what the nation needs and whether they want a continuation of Bush's controversial policies for another four years. Bush's challenge is complicated by the fact that it's not exactly 'morning in America.' . . . The country is at war, the economy is shaky, and large numbers of Americans have real doubts about the future."

Walsh also sees a private side of Bush, that isn't so sunny.

"For his part, Bush is starting to show signs of wear. His hair is graying rapidly, and a recent knee injury sustained while he was jogging made the 58-year-old commander in chief feel his age. . . . Aides say he seems a bit more prickly these days and gets angry when he loses a vote on Capitol Hill, when his adversaries target him with what he considers cheap shots, and when there are setbacks in Iraq. Bush vents at a number of his senior advisers, but Rove is most often on the receiving end -- White House aides call it 'chewing on Karl.' That's partly because Rove is with the president so much and partly because Bush trusts Rove and knows he won't take the tongue-lashings personally. In any case, Bush's anger flashes and fades, and he gets back to normal quickly."

Here are excerpts from Bush's interview with U.S. News.

NBC

Bush was also interviewed by NBC's Matt Lauer for the "Today" show while on the campaign trail in Ohio on Saturday.

Lauer asked if Bush felt most Americans would say they are better off today than four years ago. "I think over 50 percent will," Bush said.

Bush also said the war against terrorism must be fought but that it's not likely to ever end. "I don't think you can win it, but I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world."

Here's the video.

The Washington Post

David S. Broder writes: "Long-held assumptions about U.S. military and diplomatic strategy have been overturned, with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and bruised relationships with some traditional allies. At home, the budget has gone from large surpluses to larger deficits, while tax burdens have shifted and been reduced. The federal government has taken on a much larger role in setting directions for local schools and restructuring those that do not perform. The largest expansion in federal health benefits since the passage of Medicare in 1965 -- provision of prescription drugs -- passed Congress at Bush's urging.

"Whatever area one examines -- environmental policy, regulatory policy, law enforcement and broad sectors of social policy -- fundamental priorities have shifted at the direction of this president. Some of the changes are rooted in the conservative doctrines that have dominated internal Republican debates since the time of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Others reflect a distinct Bush imprint. What is beyond question is that he has turned out to be a very consequential president, an outsider who has not hesitated to challenge conventional Washington ways of thinking."

John F. Harris and Mike Allen write: "Bush's decisions and political style have virtually eliminated the political center -- sending all but a small percentage of Americans into fevered pro- and anti- camps -- and dictated a general election strategy organized around exciting core supporters and increasing turnout."

Mike Allen and David S. Broder write: "White House aides describe a president who gathers a small circle of trusted advisers, listens to brief debates and then offers swift, gut-based solutions to problems.

"But a close examination of Bush's operating style, based on interviews with former administration officials, Bush friends and outside experts, offers a more nuanced picture. In some cases, as in the decision to go to war in Iraq or to seek large tax cuts, Bush has indeed moved quickly to set his course and stick to it. In others, like North Korea policy, he has let things languish and pushed problems to the future. He has also not hesitated to switch positions when necessary, such as when he first opposed, then backed the creation of a Homeland Security Department.

"Many of Bush's admirers describe him as a leader who asks tough, probing questions of advisers but also say he is a person who, once he picks a goal, never looks back. Even strong supporters sometimes worry that his curiosity and patience seem limited, while detractors see him as intellectually lazy and dependent on ideology and sloganeering instead of realism and clear thinking. Because he has a relatively small set of advisers, dissenting voices are effectively muffled."

Los Angeles Times

Robin Abcarian writes: "If he wins in November, he will have surpassed the career of the first President Bush, who was defeated after a single term.

"If he loses, Bush will end up repeating his father's fate as a one-term president in part because he worked so hard in the White House to cut a different path."

Chicago Tribune

Lisa Anderson writes: "Oddly, at a parallel point in their presidencies, as they bid for a second term, father and son have faced the same two gravest threats to their re-election -- the aftermath of a war with Iraq and a troubled economy -- but in quite different ways. . . .

"The two Georges, as well, are dramatically different as candidates. George W. Bush, a born-again Christian, easily has embraced the religious conservatives that distanced themselves from his father. And in style and substance, the junior Bush has pressed an aggressive, unilateralist, pre-emptive military approach to foreign policy that has stunned the same traditional allies with whom his father, a former diplomat, worked to build strong coalitions."

Mark Silva writes: "It is the first time in 30 years that a president has sought re-election in wartime, and the Republicans will provide a showcase for what they believe is the greatest single strength that Bush possesses: resolve in the face of terrorism."

Boston Globe

Michael Kranish writes: "Now, as Bush again prepares to accept his party's presidential nomination, his candidacy is based on at least two major ventures fraught with risk -- the war in Iraq and massive tax cuts -- as well as on his reliance on risk as a style of governing. A former oilman who bet and sometimes lost tens of thousands of dollars on dreams of gushers, Bush has taken that wildcatting style into the White House, determined to show that, unlike his father, George H.W. Bush, he has the 'vision thing' and is unafraid of the consequences."

Baltimore Sun

David L. Greene writes: "One tantalizing question is whether voters in November will embrace or reject Bush's style of decision-making, a style that seems to have no patience for self-doubt or second-guessing. . . .

"Critics say Bush tunes out opinions that conflict with his own. Aides counter that Bush is determined to hear all points of view and meets often with people of varying perspectives. But several advisers concede that Bush often has his mind nearly made up when he consults others and has little patience for hashing out finer points. . . .

"At day's end, aides say, Bush can be fussy and cranky, carping to senior aides about how he ran late or why an audience did not respond well to a speech."

Newsday

Ken Fireman, Craig Gordon and James Toedtman write: "After a tenure marked by bold but controversial initiatives -- a pre-emptive war in Iraq, deficit-swelling tax cuts and a host of domestic policy decisions that delighted his conservative base but alienated moderates -- Bush now finds himself confronting the political consequences of those actions.

"By pursuing foreign and economic policies that departed so significantly from the prevailing consensus and lacked unambiguous public support, a president who campaigned in 2000 on a promise to be 'a uniter, not a divider' has split the country into two hostile camps, according to pollsters and political analysts."

Associated Press

Ron Fournier writes: "President Bush led the nation through the Sept. 11 attacks, against the Taliban and into Iraq -- three defining moments that have brought his political fortunes full circle to the same middling job approval rating he held Sept. 10, 2001. At the opening of his nominating convention, supporters can't help but wonder how much stronger Bush would be politically had he kept the war on terrorism out of Iraq."

New York Daily News

Thomas DeFrank writes: "President Bush's bareknuckled response to the 9/11 terrorists sent his poll numbers soaring. Three years later, ironically, Rambo needs a makeover."


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