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Bush Team Rethinks Its Plan for Recovery

President Bush greeted troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., last summer after speaking about the Iraq war. Recently, humbler assessments about Iraq have helped him regain political footing.
President Bush greeted troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., last summer after speaking about the Iraq war. Recently, humbler assessments about Iraq have helped him regain political footing. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

The White House employed every bully pulpit the president has -- speeches to military, diplomatic and political audiences; interviews with key television anchors; Cheney's surprise trip to Iraq; private briefings for congressional centrists; a prime-time Oval Office address on Dec. 18 that reached 37 million people; and an East Room news conference.

The humility theme was woven into speeches, often in the first two minutes to keep viewers from turning away. Aides had noticed that anger at Bush after Hurricane Katrina subsided somewhat after he took responsibility for the response. The idea, one senior official said, was like fighting with a spouse: "You need to give voice to their concern. That doesn't necessarily solve the division and the difference, but it drains the disagreement of some of its animosity if you feel you've been heard."

Better yet, from the White House perspective, Democrats helped frame the choice when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) endorsed Murtha's withdrawal plan and party Chairman Howard Dean declared it impossible to win in Iraq. "For most of the year we were debating events," the senior official said. "Now we're debating Democrats."

The president received the results he wanted. His approval ratings rose eight percentage points in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, to 47 percent.

Bush, who had plenty to be morose about through the fall, responded with vigor as well. Instead of heading immediately to bed after the Oval Office address, as he usually does, he stuck around to chew through themes for his upcoming State of the Union address, another high-ranking administration official said.

No one in the White House expects the speech to include anything of the magnitude of Social Security. As one aide put it, instead of home runs, Bush will focus on hitting singles and doubles. "The lesson from this year," said Grover G. Norquist, a GOP activist close to Rove, "is you cannot do anything dramatic unless you have 60 votes" in the Senate, where Republicans are five shy of the count needed to break a filibuster.

With the federal deficit projected to top $340 billion and both Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demanding substantial new money, officials are discussing bigger spending reductions than Bush has advocated in the past and changes to how government puts together its budget. On the other side of the equation, administration officials pushing for health care, education and other initiatives are squeezed.

Despite the gain in polls, some advisers see trouble ahead. Bush's top aides are telling friends they are burned out. Andrew H. Card Jr., already the longest-serving White House chief of staff in a half-century, is among those thought to be looking to leave. Rove's fate is uncertain, as he appears likely to remain under investigation in the CIA leak case, people close to the inquiry said.

Some are concerned that although Bush has changed his approach, he has not changed himself. He has been reluctant to look outside his inner circle for advice, and even some closest to Bush call that a mistake because aides have given up trying to get him to do things they know he would reject.

As they end a difficult year, advisers said they know they cannot take the recent political progress for granted. "We view this as not mission accomplished," one top aide said. "It's going to need to be sustained."

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