The White House staff reflects the president. This is obvious to the point of being a truism. Yet it needs to be remembered in the context of a Bush presidency smacked by Scooter Libby's felony conviction, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal, and the overblown flap over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. And of course there's still the war in Iraq, which remains unpopular. Given all this, why hasn't the president's staff drifted into despair and gloom and given up? Because President Bush hasn't.
Bush's relentlessly upbeat demeanor, which he flaunts at press conferences and other public events, infuriates his political opponents and much of the mainstream media. They want him to act like the broken man they think he should be. Sorry, but he's a healthy man, mentally and physically. He's bolstered by his religious faith, his sense of mission, his scorn for elite opinion, and what an aide calls "his really good physical shape." Exercise and sleep help to "keep his spirits high," the aide says.
Bush has retained, despite low approval ratings and fierce criticism, a capacity for enthusiasm. In early March, he spent 45 minutes in the Oval Office in a one-on-one conversation with British historian Andrew Roberts. He had read Roberts's new book, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (see review on page 29).
Roberts is a Thatcherite. He's strongly pro-American and pro-Iraq war. Among other things, Bush and Roberts talked about the decline of Europe and the role in this played by the shrunken influence of Christianity. By the time they broke for lunch, the president was "revved up," an aide says. His fervor was infectious. "Roberts is more conservative than I am!" a pleasantly surprised White House official exclaimed.
Bush's steadfast attitude has contributed to the combative approach the White House has taken toward the newly Democratic Congress. The president's aides, particularly from the National Security Council, have flooded Capitol Hill to lobby for the defeat of antiwar resolutions. "They're fired up on Iraq," a Senate official says.
Last week, the president declared his intention to veto legislation funding the war in Iraq moments after Democrats in the Senate and House announced they intend to attach amendments setting a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. The lack of hesitation was partly due to the demanding style of Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff. Bolten's view--and presumably Bush's--is that if you're going to do something, do it swiftly. And that, by the way, is exactly what the White House did in response to the Walter Reed scandal, instantly denouncing the poor treatment of wounded soldiers and hastily naming a commission to recommend improvements.
What has cheered congressional Republicans is the White House's eagerness to fight back on a wide range of issues, not just on Iraq and the war on terror. "They're tired [at the White House] but you don't get the sense they're giving up," a Senate official insists. "From Bush on down, they haven't stopped fighting back. If they do, it'll be trouble up here" on Capitol Hill for Republicans.
The Republican defeat in last fall's election has changed the White House's relationship with congressional Republicans. When they can get away with it, presidents and their aides treat members of Congress as underlings obligated to follow the White House on all issues. Now, with Bush a lame duck and Democrats in control of Congress, the president isn't so dominant and Republicans aren't so docile.
The result is that Bush spends more time listening to congressional Republicans. Or, as a Bush aide describes it, "our level of engagement with our allies on Capitol Hill has increased in a serious way." This has filtered down to the president's press office. Since February, Bush press aides have conducted twice-weekly conference calls with spokesmen for Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. Press Secretary Tony Snow often joins the calls.
Bush's humbler approach has also influenced his effort to enact immigration reform. Last year, the president and his aides were ready for him to sign a bill opposed by a majority of Republicans in both the Senate and House. The sweeping measure was supported passionately by Democrats. Now, Bush aides--led by Karl Rove--are negotiating with key Republican opponents of last year's bill, notably Senators John Cornyn and Jon Kyl, for a scaled-back version of immigration reform. "We're listening to the Hill," a Bush lobbyist says.
Bush and his aides are listening to Republicans as well at the president's regular meetings with bipartisan leaders in Congress. Republicans found that Democrats had a bigger voice at the sessions. So, with White House approval, Republican leaders decided to convene the day before and decide on a plan for the bicameral meeting.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Libby conviction scarcely fazed the president's staff. Aides were saddened but not surprised. The expectation was that, even if Libby had been acquitted, he wouldn't be returning to the White House. Besides, the jury's verdict was "an individual judgment, not an institutional judgment," an official says. In other words, the conviction applied only to Libby's conduct and not the White House's. That may sound like a cold appraisal, but it's true.
Almost alone in Washington, the White House is optimistic about Iraq. "Think where we were two months ago," an aide says. "The sense in Washington was that the floor was collapsing in Iraq. It looked like Senator [John] Warner would soon be taking a trip to the Oval Office to tell the president the war can no longer be sustained." Now the president believes "progress" is being made in Iraq. And if he's hopeful, so is everyone else at the White House.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.