Bolten Sees Bush Reaching Out to Congress

The Associated Press
Monday, December 4, 2006; 6:56 AM

WASHINGTON -- White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten graciously offered his desk chair to President Clinton's chief of staff Leon Panetta when he was touring the West Wing with interns a few days after the election.

Seeing Panetta behind Bolten's desk, Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, did a double take.

"God, I knew we lost the election _ I didn't think you were taking over the White House," Panetta recalls Rove saying.

Since the election, Bush is having to share the seat of power with the Democrats. And Bolten has become his bridge to Capitol Hill.

"The election was not a happy event around here, obviously," Bolten said, sitting on a couch in his spacious corner office where light streams in through tall windows. "Everybody's disappointed, but I haven't seen a single discouraged person."

To keep the staff focused, Bolten handed out about a dozen countdown clocks that show the number of days, hours, minutes and seconds left in Bush's presidency. The clock read 1,000 days in April when Bolten started his job, saying it was time for the White House to "get our mojo back."

Six months later, the pendulum has swung the Democrats' way, Iraq is chaotic and the president's job approval rating is stuck in the 30s. There now are fewer than 800 days left _ not a long time to push the Bush agenda, especially when the president's power is slipping away like sands through an hourglass.

Democrats claim their Election Day victory meant the president would limp through his final two years in office.

"I don't believe any of that," Bolten says.

Then, in his soft, direct style, Bolten suggests a silver lining to the GOP defeat: In the majority, Democrats will have more of a burden to show progress, especially heading into the race for the White House in 2008. The Democrats' 51-49 majority in the Senate is slim. Republicans still control the White House. And 800 days is nearly as long as Gerald Ford's presidency.

"You'll see us accommodating to the new environment and working more closely with Democrats than we have in the past," said Bolten, a 52-year-old self-described "policy geek" who has been spending time on Capitol Hill helping draft the GOP's new game plan.

"But I do not see the president compromising on principles. There may be people in the conservative base who fear that he is going to turn on his principles, but I think they will see fairly readily that he won't."

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