White House Journal

The President as Average Joe

President Bush, at a naturalization ceremony, has made more public appearances recently without a script or a prescreened audience.
President Bush, at a naturalization ceremony, has made more public appearances recently without a script or a prescreened audience. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

President Bush was taking questions from an audience the other day when he was asked about the immigration debate raging in Washington.

"It's obviously topic du jour ," he said.

The audience laughed at the famously Francophobic Texan's faux accent.

"Pretty fancy, huh?" Bush asked, mocking himself. "Topic du jour ?"

The audience laughed again.

"I don't want to ruin the image," he added conspiratorially.

As he takes to the road to salvage his presidency, Bush is letting down his guard and playing up his anti-intellectual, regular-guy image. Where he spent last year in rehearsed forums with select supporters, these days he is more frequently throwing aside the script and opening himself to questions from audiences that are not prescreened. These sessions have put a sometimes playful, sometimes awkward side back on display after years of trying to keep it under control to appear more presidential.

Call it the let-Bush-be-Bush strategy. The result is a looser president, less serious at times, even at times when humor might seem out of place. Aides used to dread such settings, worried about gaffes or the way Bush might come across in spontaneous exchanges. But with his poll numbers somewhere south of the border, they concluded that Bush handles back-and-forth better than he once did -- and that they have little left to lose.

"It shows the range of his personality, the humor," said White House counselor Dan Bartlett. He said the White House has worked to put Bush out in public more, noting that he has had news conferences twice as often in his second term as in his first. "In a couple different ways, we've expanded his exposure," Bartlett said.

In the past couple of weeks, Bush has taken audience questions at two events, in addition to two news conferences. He has answered expansively, sometimes ranging beyond the talking points. He does not brutalize the English language as much (although last week he mangled the name of his ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, pronouncing it Kahl-i-had ). And he banters with audiences in a way he doesn't when delivering a conventional speech.

"My name is Jose Feliciano," a questioner introduced himself in Cleveland last month.

"No!" Bush answered skeptically.

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