'My Heart and My Values Didn't Change'

Aides praise the president for coming to terms with his approval ratings and resolutely making difficult decisions.
Aides praise the president for coming to terms with his approval ratings and resolutely making difficult decisions. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)
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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

On a cold, gray morning a week before Election Day, President Bush briefly emerged from the White House for an unannounced visit to the headquarters of the Republican National Committee in Southeast Washington.

Outside the RNC building, Bush continued to face record-low approval ratings and a presidential campaign focused on his failings. But inside an overflowing conference room, he was greeted with roaring applause as he urged his fellow Republicans to keep pushing for the finish line.

"His general message was to thank the staff for everything we've been doing and encourage us to keep working hard all the way through Election Day," said one person who attended the closed event. "It was upbeat and very exciting."

Even for a declared optimist, Bush has appeared remarkably sanguine in this season of discontent. The economy is melting down, his own party has shunned him, and Tuesday's election is shaping up as a searing rebuke to his eight years in office.

Yet according to allies inside and outside the White House, Bush's mood remains buoyant and his attention is focused on the global financial collapse. In private meetings with business leaders, Bush has made a point of saying that he is happy the crisis happened on his watch so the next president and a new economic team do not have to grapple with it.

"His high energy level and spirit sets the tone for the rest of us," said Kevin Sullivan, Bush's communications director. "There's been no time to worry about any of this other stuff. . . . He believes the American people expect us to finish strong and to leave things in the best possible position for his successor."

Others inside and outside the administration, however, say the upbeat talk masks disappointment and frustration among many White House staffers, who believe Bush's reputation has been unfairly maligned for a series of calamities -- from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to the financial crisis -- that were beyond his control and that he handled well. GOP nominee John McCain's escalating attacks on Bush's tenure have added to the irritation, these people said.

"Everybody kind of wanted to spend the last 100-plus days doing some legacy things, and the financial crisis has thrown a wrench into that," said one prominent Republican who regularly talks with senior White House officials.

"You have a combination of no legacy stuff, a horrible economic mess and the likelihood that Obama is going to win," this person added. "There is a real sadness there."

None of this would matter, of course, if not for Bush's deep and abiding unpopularity. Bush has not commanded approval from a majority of the nation since early 2005, making him arguably the most disliked president since polling on the question began in the 1930s. A Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll last week put Bush's approval rating at 24 percent and found that McCain had made little headway in separating himself from Bush or his policies.

It's not for lack of trying. For the first time in recent memory, a sitting president has effectively sat out the presidential race, avoiding public appearances on behalf of McCain and other Republicans and raising far less money than usual in private fundraisers. Bush voted for McCain by absentee ballot rather than voting in person in Texas, as he has for the past three elections, and officials say he plans to spend election night at the White House rather than at a rally or other campaign-related event.

Bush held his last closed GOP fundraiser of the season nearly two weeks ago and cleared his schedule of public events from Friday through Election Day. Vice President Cheney, by contrast, held a rally for McCain in Wyoming yesterday -- an event to which the campaign of Democratic nominee Barack Obama was quick to call attention.

"This is unprecedented for a president to be this invisible during a campaign," said Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "This is what happens when you have a 25 percent approval rating."

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Friday that plenty of Republicans wanted Bush to host fundraisers, but the president decided to focus on the economic crisis in recent weeks. Because of ongoing news events, Fratto added, "he's had to be a lot more visible than we would have liked during the most intense period of the campaign."

Aides say privately that Bush long ago made peace with his low approval ratings, which have persisted despite significant improvements in Iraq, the original source of his polling woes. Some current and former aides argue that Bush's unpopularity has made it easier for him to push ahead with difficult decisions, such as a series of dramatic interventions into the financial markets that have angered conservatives over the past two months.

"You're more liberated to act when you've internalized those low approval ratings," said Pete Wehner, a former top Bush adviser. "This is a White House and a president that are in some ways galvanized by a crisis."

Ari Fleischer, one of Bush's former press secretaries, said that although Bush is "not prone to talk about legacy," he and his closest advisers are confident that history "will remember him well."

"Would he like to be more popular?" Fleischer added. "Of course he would. Of course it bugs him. But it doesn't guide him or drive him."

There is little outward sign of irritation from Bush, who has maintained a sense of good cheer in many of his less-formal public appearances this year. During a celebration honoring Theodore Roosevelt's 150th birthday last week, Bush joked: "People ask me, 'Do you ever see any of the ghosts of your predecessors here in the White House?' I said, 'No, I quit drinking.' "

That enduring, frat-boy enthusiasm is exactly the sort of thing that riles his detractors, but supporters say Bush's optimism has been central to his political survival. "When you're inside, and the president is so optimistic, you're not paying as much attention to the noise outside," said Candida "Candi" Wolff, a former White House legislative affairs director. "It keeps everybody focused."

Bush's public schedule over the past few months has included a parade of farewell meetings with friendly foreign leaders, from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Bush has also let down his guard on a few occasions, showing traces of the kind of nostalgia he normally eschews.

In early October, for example, Bush made a side trip to one of his boyhood homes in Midland, Tex., which has been turned into a presidential historic site. Standing in front of the modest rambler that housed two future presidents, Bush recalled a farewell rally that he attended in Midland on his way to Washington in 2001.

"I said, 'You know, I'm not going to change as a person because of politics or Washington' -- that's what I said when I left," Bush said. "I think they appreciate that. I want them to know that, you know, even though I had to deal with a lot of tough issues, that I'm still the same person that they knew before and that, you know, I'm wiser, more experienced, but my heart and my values didn't change."

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