Bush Shows He Can Turn on a Dime

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006; 3:58 PM

For five years, ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush has pursued the war in Iraq, his legislative agenda and his policies for fighting terrorism with a single-mindedness that inspired admiration among the Republican faithful -- and, if the election results are an accurate gauge, increasing consternation among the American public.

This afternoon, Bush showed that he could turn on a dime if necessary: Bush ousted Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld only a week after telling reporters he would stay through the end of the administration. And he voiced great willingness to work with Democrats on Capitol Hill, following an election campaign in which he regularly impugned the opposition for policies he said could weaken America and lead to the victory of terrorists.

At a news conference today, Bush made clear that had heard the results of Tuesday's stunning election results, whichleft Bush facing not only aHouse but also, possibly, a Senate in the hands of the opposition party -- should the narrow Democratic lead in Virginia hold up.

Bush offered an unusual dose of self-criticism, saying he shares a "large part of the responsibility" for Tuesday's GOP election debacle. He said he hopes to find "common ground" with the Democrats and he wanted a "fresh perspective" at the Pentagon. Asked how he could work with the Democrats after harsh rhetoric on both sides, Bush replied: "I've been around politics a long time; I understand when campaigns end, and I know when governing begins. And I am going to work with people of both parties."

The new rhetoric reflected the hard reality that if Bush hopes to accomplish any significant initiative in the last two years of his term, he will almost certainly have to rethink a legislative and political strategy that for the past five years depended almost entirely on Republican votes for success.

With Democrats evidently anxious to show that they have matured as a governing party, the opportunity may be there for the president to reach accommodation with the opposition before he leaves the White House in two years. William A. Galston, a top Democratic strategist from the centrist wing of the party, said in an interview before the news conference that prospects for the kind of broad immigration reform the president wants -- tough enforcement coupled with some kind of pathway to citizenship for long-time illegal immigrants -- may have improved with more Democrats elected to Congress.

"Is he prepared to deal with a Democratic majority that may push him farther than he wants to go -- that's his decision," said Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "To a remarkable degree, this election puts the ball in the president's court."

But the most significant will be how Bush handles the rapidly evolving politics surrounding the war in Iraq. With his comments today -- and the appointment as defense secretary of former CIA director Robert Gates, known as a member of the more pragmatic Republican school of foreign policy -- Bush seemed to signal a willingness to rethink key aspects of his Iraq strategy in light of the clear repudiation by a broad swath of the electorate. The White House has said it is awaiting advice from a bipartisan study group co-chaired by former Republican secretary of state James A. Baker III, and many in the foreign policy community expect the panel's report will present Bush a vehicle to try to gain more international support for trying to resolve the conflict there.

With control of at least one chamber of Congress -- and its powerful committee structure -- Democrats will for the first time be positioned to challenge Bush's conduct of the war while promoting their own idea of a phased withdrawal of 140,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. Bush also will likely face enormous pressure from major figures in his own party to trim his ambitions of establishing a stable, functioning democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) , a leading Democratic critic of the war and a candidate to be the new House majority leader, told National Public Radio that the change of power in the House "is going to change politics" on the war. "You get the committee system working in a bipartisan manner -- and that's the only way this problem can be solved -- and then we confront the president on the issue," he said.

While the president may say "we're not going to change the policy," Murtha added, Democrats will begin holding the administration accountable for its decisions on Iraq.

Vin Weber, a lobbyist and former GOP lawmaker with close ties in the White House, said Iraq may have actually become more complicated for the Democrats with the election results. "The Democrats have had it easy so far -- they have just been able to criticize and identify with the voters' frustration," he said. "Now they are going to have to become partners in governing."

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