Presidents Past Inspire Bush's Damage Control

President Bush, with political adviser Karl Rove, declined to answer reporters' questions about the CIA leak investigation.
President Bush, with political adviser Karl Rove, declined to answer reporters' questions about the CIA leak investigation. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Facing a convergence of crises threatening his administration, President Bush and his team are devising plans to salvage the remainder of his presidency by applying the lessons of past two-term chief executives and refocusing attention on the president's larger economic and foreign policy goals.

Rarely has a president confronted as many damaging developments that could all come to a head in this week. A special counsel appears poised to indict one or more administration officials within days. Pressure is building on Bush from within his own party to withdraw the faltering Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers. And any day the death toll of U.S. troops in Iraq will pass the symbolically important 2,000 mark.

To deal with what they consider the darkest days of the Bush presidency, White House advisers have developed a twofold strategy -- confront head-on problems such as the Iraq death toll, while shifting attention to other areas such as conservative economic policies, according to a senior White House official, who spoke about internal deliberations only under the condition of anonymity. Bush advisers are taking clues from the playbooks of former presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, both of whom weathered second-term scandals.

The White House strategy will unfold over the next several days, starting with yesterday's announcement of a new Federal Reserve Board chairman and continuing today with a presidential speech on Iraq at Bolling Air Force Base. Anticipating a barrage of criticism when the death toll hits 2,000, Bush will try to put the sacrifice in perspective by portraying the Iraq war as the best way to keep terrorists from striking the United States again, the official said. He will make the same case in another speech Friday in Norfolk.

Although Bush has made this case often, aides hope the public will be more receptive in the aftermath of the apparently successful referendum vote for a new Iraqi constitution, whose official results will be announced this week. The White House also sees the economy as one of the few parcels of safe political land these days. Bush plans to follow yesterday's Federal Reserve appointment with a call for fiscal discipline at the Economic Club of Washington tomorrow.

In such a time of trouble, the overall challenge for Bush, according to Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, is to "keep energy in the executive" and focus on the president's larger second-term goals, such as spreading democracy in the Middle East. The risk, he said, is getting consumed by the bad news of the moment.

"If you look at Reagan who had two [failed Supreme Court] nominees, who lost control of the Senate and had Iran-contra, did he still have a successful final three years? Absolutely," Mehlman said in an interview. So, too, will Bush, he predicted. "One of the great strengths of this team has been from the beginning their ability to keep their eye on the big picture and long-term [goals], while also dealing with short-term challenges."

Though less eager to talk about it, Republican advisers also have studied the Clinton strategy for surviving the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal and the impeachment that followed. Throughout that crisis, Clinton regularly fell back on the message that he was focused on his duties even if everyone else in Washington was absorbed by scandal, an approach aides credited with helping save his presidency.

Consciously or not, Bush seemed to echo that line last week in the Rose Garden when he was asked about all the problems afflicting his White House. Dismissing all the "background noise," Bush said, "the American people expect me to do my job, and I'm going to."

"I think I've heard that one before," Mark Fabiani, a former Clinton White House lawyer, said with a laugh yesterday. "But it comes down to the person. Anybody can deliver the line. The question is: Can you compartmentalize these issues so they don't consume you? And I think Bush's job is more difficult than Clinton's because the questions here go right to the heart of the presidency."

As a chief of staff under Clinton, Leon E. Panetta heard that line before, too. "It's probably in a book someplace in the White House for when you get in trouble," he said. "It's under 'Scandal' and 'Big Trouble.' " But while it's the right thing to say, he said, "if you've ever worked in a White House, you know damn well it's not background noise. It's affecting everything you do as president."

In private, Bush has expressed frustration over the turn of events, although he remains determined not to let them dominate his agenda, according to some close to him. "The president's holding up pretty well," said a friend who asked not to be named to discuss private sentiments. "He's going to get angry about some things and express his point of view. This clearly isn't what he wanted to deal with. He's got a lot of problems. But what choice does anyone have? Raise a white flag?"

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