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Presidents Past Inspire Bush's Damage Control

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?"

The most immediate threat appears to be the CIA leak investigation aimed at White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, the architect of Bush's political successes, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the chief of staff for Vice President Cheney. White House officials fear special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald will indict one or both of them before the expiration of a grand jury on Friday.

Because the issues at the center of the investigation involve the justification of the war in Iraq, any indictment could revive debate over Bush's decision to invade at a time of greater attention to the rising casualty count. War critics will use the occasion to raise their own volume; the liberal group MoveOn plans to sponsor candlelight vigils and run television ads asking, "How many more?"

Unlike Clinton or Reagan, who were sustained through second-term crises by support from their respective party bases, Bush for the moment faces the complication of a revolt among conservatives. Anger over the selection of Miers instead of a proven conservative has released pent-up aggravation on the right with other Bush initiatives, including high spending on Hurricane Katrina relief, expanding Medicare entitlements and easing immigration rules.

"Conservatives bit their tongues quite frankly for the last four years," said Richard A. Viguerie, an architect of the conservative movement. "There's a lot of things we're unhappy with." If Bush does not withdraw Miers, he said, it could "doom his second term" because "it'll be very hard to govern without a conservative base."

"These are not the best of times," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who pointed to polls in his state showing Bush losing support even among hard-core Republicans. "People are your friends when you are up, and people pile on when you are down."

The White House hopes to defuse conservative opposition to Miers by appealing to Republican senators to withhold judgment until Senate hearings scheduled to begin Nov. 7. So far, the Bush team has succeeded in keeping any Senate Republican from overtly opposing Miers. If she can beat the now-lowered expectations at the hearings, the White House hopes Miers can still win confirmation.

Bush's problems are roiling off-year political campaigns. In Virginia, the prospect of a Rove indictment coming just days before the Nov. 8 election has state Republicans on edge. Public and private polls show Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine virtually tied as they enter the final two weeks, and internal GOP surveys show incumbent Republican candidates for the House of Delegates losing support in recent days, sources said. As a result, indictments could be devastating to Kilgore and his party.

"Our problem is that our base is depressed because of national events," said one Republican strategist who declined to be identified. "It has a huge impact on the electorate."

For a White House used to operating on offense, all this has put it in the unusual, and uncomfortable, position of being on defense. Bush aides hope that will pass if he maintains focus, and they have already begun crafting an agenda for 2006 that he can lay out in his State of the Union address next year, a speech that will likely include proposals for restructuring the tax code and other initiatives.

"There are certainly difficulties and challenges we continue to face," said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan. "The president is going on leading on the priorities the American people care most about and the White House is as well."

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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