By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2007
NEWPORT, R.I., June 28 -- He looked uncharacteristically dejected as he approached the lectern, fiddling with papers as he talked and avoiding the sort of winking eye contact he often makes with reporters. And then President Bush did something he almost never does: He admitted defeat.
"A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find a common ground," he said an hour after his immigration plan died on Capitol Hill. "It didn't work."
It was, in the end, simply a statement of reality after the Senate buried his proposal to overhaul immigration laws. But for a president who makes a point of never giving in, even when he loses, it was a striking moment, underscoring the depth of his political travails. It took almost two years before Bush acknowledged, just months ago, that his effort to reshape Social Security had failed. Now he has surrendered in what was probably his last chance of securing a legacy-making second-term domestic victory.
The desultory appearance in a college hallway here after a speech on Iraq may have marked the death of ambition in Bush's legislative agenda. The paradigm shift that senior adviser Karl Rove saw after the 2004 election has now proved illusory. The Ownership Society that Bush promised to build in 2005 is rarely mentioned these days. Even the hope-against-hope optimism of finding bipartisan common ground after the 2006 elections has officially evaporated.
"Sand is flowing out of the hourglass," said Fred I. Greenstein, a Princeton University scholar on the presidency, who was struck by the gloomy tone of Bush's televised statement. "He looked much less like the kid on the cover of Mad magazine without a care. . . . He looked very angry and almost having difficulty getting the sentences out. That seems to me to contrast with some of the early stages" of his presidency.
Bush emerged from reelection with four main domestic priorities for his second term, as identified by Rove and other aides: He planned to reinvent Social Security to allow investment of some funds in the stock market, overhaul the tax code from top to bottom, bring millions of illegal immigrants out of the shadows and impose tough new curbs on what he called excessive litigation. He is now almost zero-for-four.
The Social Security plan died when a Republican Congress decided not to take it up. Tax overhaul died when Bush took the report he commissioned and put it on a shelf because it would be too provocative. And though he pushed through limits on class-action lawsuits, the rest of his litigation program -- proposals to restrict medical malpractice awards and settle long-standing asbestos claims -- has been stalled for years.
Bush has lately sketched out a new agenda in areas such as energy and health care, and he may yet make progress on those in the 18 months he has left. But going forward, aides acknowledged, the once swaggering president will be in a defensive crouch. His immediate domestic plans include imploring lawmakers to reauthorize his No Child Left Behind education program, while trying to stop Congress from expanding a children's health insurance program and, with it, the federal deficit.
Although each fight has had its own dynamics, aides broadly blame the collapse of Bush's domestic agenda on the war in Iraq, which soured Congress and the public even before Democrats won control of the Hill last November. And yet, with his legislative prospects vanishing, the remainder of his presidency comes back again to Iraq, as demonstrated again Thursday when he tried to make the case for sticking to his current strategy during an address at the Naval War College.
Flanked by flat-panel televisions showing maps of Anbar province, photos of a blown-up mosque and charts of falling violence, Bush said he was "encouraged" by what he called "hopeful signs" since the extra troops he sent arrived in Iraq. Yet even in this military setting, the audience responded politely and without much enthusiasm, withholding applause except for introductions until deep into the speech and posing a couple of tough questions after it was over.
"At the beginning of your speech, you said that you consult with the military," said one woman. "With all due respect sir, how much do you really listen and follow them?"
"Yes," he answered. "A lot. I don't see how you can be the commander in chief of a well-motivated military without listening carefully to the advice of your commanders."
Aides tried to portray the defeat of the immigration legislation as a failure of Congress rather than of the president. "This is the kind of thing that frustrates the American people, that Congress was unable to come together and get something done on an issue that was clearly important to the public," said a senior official. "This is the reason why people are rejecting Washington."
White House aides bemoaned how little has been accomplished during the first six months of the Democratic Congress, noting that public approval of Congress has plummeted even lower than Bush's ratings. Unspoken in that critique was the fact that the immigration defeat was dealt largely by members of the president's party.
Still, Bush got a break from Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). When the immigration bill stalled several weeks ago, Reid blamed Bush. But on Thursday, he gave Bush credit for trying. "The president worked hard, and so did many senators," Reid said. "But the big winner today was obstruction. The big winner today was inaction."
Bush recognizes that his time is running short. In March, he told an audience in Guatemala that he had to get an immigration bill to his desk by August to have a chance of success. After that, he reasoned, the congressional budget calendar and the presidential election campaign would make it impossible. But he and Rove remained supremely confident that they would prevail. Just 17 days ago, while in Bulgaria, Bush brushed off pessimism about the legislation. "I'll see you at the bill-signing," he predicted.
By Thursday, his tone had changed. He made no pretense that the immigration initiative might still be revived before he leaves office. Instead, he indicated that he is moving on to other issues. He would probably not admit to being humbled, but he appeared at least chagrined.
At one point during his Iraq speech, Bush pleaded for patience with Iraqis trying to pass reconciliation legislation. "In a democracy," he said, "the head of government just can't decree the outcome."
The audience laughed. Bush smiled wanly and joked: "I'm not saying that's what I'd like to do."
Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and Michael Abramowitz in Washington contributed to this report.