HONOLULU, OCT. 28 -- When administration and congressional negotiators reached agreement on a deficit-reduction plan, President Bush hurried back to Washington from the United Nations to host a Sunday afternoon Rose Garden ceremony to embrace the pact and urge its enactment.
"It is balanced, it is fair, and in my view it is what the United States of America needs," he said then.
This weekend, when the House and Senate finally approved a revised plan, Bush was far from the action -- meeting with Pacific island leaders here in Hawaii and raising money for Republicans. And he greeted the end of the long process with the enthusiasm of a man who had been dragged to the dinner table for a meal not to his liking.
"There are some things in it," he said, "that I had to gag and digest."
The contrast between Bush's Rose Garden embrace and his Hawaiian indigestion symbolizes the president's wavering approach to the most important domestic issue facing the country.
After initiating the budget summit last May on the advice of administration officials who feared that failure to bring down the deficit could plunge the already-weak economy into a recession, Bush tried to walk away from much of it in the end -- while still expressing hope that it would be good for the economy.
"I'm going to say, look, I've reluctantly signed this," he told reporters Saturday.
In the end, Bush had difficulty reconciling his position as head of the government and head of his party. His desire for bipartisan cooperation with Democrats collided with his party's anger over a package that raised taxes substantially. Unable to choose one over the other, Bush sent a confusing and conflicting message to the American people.
Bush put "everything on the table" -- a euphemism for taxes -- when he called the talks. In June he made it explicit, issuing a statement that said increased tax revenues were required as part of a balanced package. Initially, he tried to walk away from that statement, with aides suggesting that it did not mean higher taxes. Later, after the political damage had been done, those same aides said the president had exercised leadership and expended political capital in doing so.
"When the president started this six months ago, he recognized that the most important thing he could do for the economy was to get a deficit-reduction package," a senior administration official told reporters last week. "He was willing to expend a little of his political capital."
Bush's approval ratings continue to fall in the face of his handling of the budget. A new Newsweek-Gallup poll showed his approval ratings dipping to 48 percent. White House Chief of Staff John Sununu said today on ABC-TV's "This Week with David Brinkley" that Bush would bounce back "in a relatively short period of time."
A senior official said last week that Bush would not have been "fulfilling his leadership role" if he had simply sat on his then-high poll ratings and done nothing about the deficit. "He knew he had to lead and it would be a very rocky road to success."
But in the final hours of the congressional debate on the budget, Bush absented himself from that leadership role. As House and Senate Democrats scrambled to round up votes to pass the agreement, Bush left Washington on a five-day campaign swing to California, Hawaii and Oklahoma. Irritated Democrats in Congress wondered why the president was not working harder to persuade his fellow Republicans to vote for the package.
By then, Bush had chosen to act as party leader rather than leader of the government. He was persuaded by nervous Republicans that he had to do what he could in the final 10 days before the midterm elections to help neutralize the Democratic charges that the budget talks had revealed Republicans as defenders of the rich.
He said he understood -- even sympathized -- with Republicans who defected from the package. He told audiences he wanted more Republicans in Congress to help him pass the kind of budget he liked. But while he threw himself into the campaigning, he also revealed his impatience with the rebellion within his own party and the ideological arguments of conservatives who rigidly opposed any new taxes.
"No matter what little philosophical wing of the party they're from, more of them, all of them would be better than what I face when I try to get stuff done from the Democrats," Bush said. "I mean, that's what it's all about."
In the final hours of the budget debate, Bush stumped alone for his party. The candidates for whom he had come remained back in Washington to vote on the budget. It seemed that the only politician who wasn't needed there at the conclusion was the man who originally set the table.