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Bush Talks About the Bubble

They also explain how, "[i]n subtle ways, Bush does not encourage truth-telling or at least a full exploration of all that could go wrong. A former senior member of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad occasionally observed Bush on videoconferences with his top advisers. 'The president would ask the generals, "Do you have what you need to complete the mission?" as opposed to saying, "Tell me, General, what do you need to win?" which would have opened up a whole new set of conversations,' says this official, who did not want to be identified discussing high-level meetings. The official says that the way Bush phrased his questions, as well as his obvious lack of interest in long, detailed discussions, had a chilling effect. . . .

"Bush may be the most isolated president in modern history, at least since the late-stage Richard Nixon. It's not that he is a socially awkward loner or a paranoid. He can charm and joke like the frat president he was. Still, beneath a hail-fellow manner, Bush has a defensive edge, a don't-tread-on-me prickliness. It shows in Bush's humor. When Reagan told a joke, it almost never was about someone in the room. Reagan's jokes may have been scatological or politically incorrect, but they were inclusive, intended to make everyone join in the laughter. Often, Bush's joking is personal -- it is aimed at you. The teasing can be flattering (the president gave me a nickname!), but it is intended, however so subtly, to put the listener on the defensive. It is a towel-snap that invites a retort. How many people dare to snap back at a president?

"Not many, and not unless they have known the president a long, long time. (Even Karl Rove, or 'Turd Blossom,' as he is sometimes addressed by the president, knows when to hold his tongue.) In the Bush White House, disagreement is often equated with disloyalty."

Karen Tumulty and Mike Allen write in Time, by contrast: "Guests at the holiday parties are noticing a different tone to George Bush. . . .

"[A]t some of the smaller gatherings this year, Bush has freed himself from the photo line to circulate with an intensity his friends haven't seen before. An adviser who encountered Bush on one of these reconnaissance missions through the Red Room last week tells Time, 'He's listening a little more because he's looking for something new. He's looking for ideas. He wants to hear what people are saying, because something might strike him as worth following up on.'"

But Tumulty and Allen note that this may have its limits, as "recalibration and retrenchment do not come naturally to this President. Bush recently rejected a draft of an economic speech because it didn't mention his now dead proposal to restructure Social Security. He is still steamed because his nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers for the Supreme Count imploded; he vented about it to African-American leaders who met with him last week to discuss racial issues and Katrina disaster relief -- prompting one of them to gently remind him that it was not African Americans but conservative Republicans who were her undoing. . . .

"Bush's team seems tired and short on inspiration. Advisers anticipate a high-profile departure or two from the White House staff before February. But the President dismisses the idea that any sort of housecleaning is in order. 'Who do you think is talking?' he asks when he hears of public speculation about firings and resignations in his White House. . . .

"However improbable the odds at this point or modest his short-term goals, aides say, Bush still subscribes to Rove's long-held dream that his will be the transformational presidency that lays the groundwork for a Republican majority that can endure, as Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition did, for a half-century or more. Once he gets past the midterm elections, Bush plans to introduce a concept that, if anything, is even more ambitious than his failed Social Security plan: a grand overhaul that would include not only that program but Medicare and Medicaid as well."

Allen was also on NBC's Meet the Press with Tim Russert yesterday. "There's still great promise in this administration. But nobody sees a clear plan to achieving that promise," Allen said. "A lot of friends of the president thought he's going to be one of the greats. They thought it was a given that he was going to be a Roosevelt, a Lincoln. Now, they're not sure. They think he still has it in him. If you talk to his friends, the president has not changed. They talk about a sort of Zen-like quality that he has."

Allen also added this observation: "Tim, I'm going to tell you something that's going to amaze you because it amazed me when I looked it up yesterday and I lost a bet on this. The last time the president was in the hurricane region was October 11th, two months ago. The president stood in New Orleans and said it was going to be one of the largest reconstruction efforts in the history of the world. You go to the White House home page , there's Barney-Cam, there's Social Security, there's renewing Iraq. Where's renewing New Orleans? A presidential adviser told me that that issue has fallen so far off the radar screen, you can't even find it.

"Now, the White House told me that a lot of administration officials are going down there. . . . but the other thing that was in the president's speech that's not mentioned there is: Remember how we thought that we had learned a lesson about race and poverty from what happened in New Orleans? One of the most memorable oratorical passages of this presidency, the White House put out, you know, bound books of that speech, talking about what he was going to do in that area. I go to speeches every day, we don't hear that."

Back in Newsweek, columnist Fareed Zakaria piles on, writing: "Bush's travel schedule seems calculated to involve as little contact as possible with the country he is in. Perhaps the White House should look into the new teleconferencing technologies. If set up right, the president could soon conduct foreign policy without ever having to actually meet foreigners."

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