Setting a new tone for the year ahead

In this photograph provided by the White House, President Bush signs into law the "Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2006" at the Bush ranch, Friday, Dec. 30, 2005, in Crawford, Texas.

AP Photo/The White House, Shealah Craighead
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
For six days, President Bush has stayed in nearly complete isolation on his ranch here - just mountain-biking and brush-clearing, the White House insisted daily, and seeing only one visitor, his mother-in-law, Jenna Welch. He never even ventured into this little town of 600, not even to the cheeseburger joint that he often uses as a political tool to show that he is in touch with his neighbors.
But on New Year's Day, after a brief stop at an Army hospital in San Antonio to visit wounded soldiers, Bush is scheduled to return to the White House earlier than usual from his break and start a campaign to set the tone for 2006 and, perhaps, the remainder of his presidency.
As part of an ambitious strategy the White House has mapped out for the next four weeks, Bush has scheduled two major speeches - one on the economy on Friday in Chicago, another on Iraq - ahead of the State of the Union address, which is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 31. By the time he appears before Congress, Bush's aides are hoping, two of the immediate challenges the president faces - the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. and the permanent renewal of the Patriot Act - will be behind him.
And on Thursday at the White House, he is meeting with previous secretaries of state and defense to try to make the case that after the recent raucous debate over Iraq, there are fewer differences than meet the eye on what to do there next. It is a theme that his national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, struck in a little-noted speech just as Bush was getting out of Washington, where he described the "common ground" that has emerged on training Iraqi forces and building a cohesive government there.
"We've listened to our critics and are already pursuing many of their proposals," he insisted, though he drew the line at pulling out troops in the near future. Bush is expected to hit the same themes.
After his days of silence here, Bush began giving the country a taste of the tone he has in mind. In his New Year's radio address, delivered Saturday morning, he argued that in Iraq, American forces were "overcoming earlier setbacks" - a reference to early errors in Iraq that he was long loath to acknowledge, but that White House officials now boast was the key to reversing the worst slide in his approval ratings since the beginning of his presidency. Bush also said that after the Dec. 15 Iraqi election, whose results are still in flux, the country was on its way to "an inclusive, unified and lasting democracy."
On the economic front he insisted that, even with tax cuts, his government was "staying on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009," but he made no mention of the fact that his Treasury secretary, John W. Snow, asked Congress on Thursday to raise the debt limit again, the fourth time in Bush's presidency, so that the government can borrow more money, largely for increases in military and entitlement programs.
But the deficit may be only one of the gathering clouds in his dealings with a Republican Congress that has been uncommonly unruly in recent months. Though Bush made no mention of the subject in his radio address, some of his advisers and national security officials say the White House has decided in the past two weeks to take a hard line with congressional inquiries into Bush's secret authorization of wiretaps without warrants on suspects within the United States.
The White House's effort to deflect a congressional investigation into a secret executive order he issued in 2002 authorizing domestic spying follows a strategy Bush tried - and ultimately retreated from - in the controversies over why he claimed Saddam Hussein was seeking uranium in Africa and what kind of warnings the White House received about Al Qaeda's ambitions before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush's aides and intelligence officials say they plan to refuse to offer more details in public on why they believe the technology of the program made it necessary to bypass the secret court designed to authorize wiretapping efforts inside the United States.
They are preparing to dispute vigorously and quite publicly the broader legal critique, offered by some Democrats, the American Civil Liberties Union and some Republicans, that the president acted beyond his authority as commander in chief.
"We're not going to shy away from this debate," Bush's counselor, Dan Bartlett, said on Friday from Washington.
In interviews over the past week, Bush's aides said they were convinced that Bush's decision to admit that he authorized the program - and then to say little about its details - will be enough to keep an increasingly fractious Republican majority in line.
But they are clearly worried about the minor revolt among Republicans in both the House and the Senate that forced Bush to accept an amendment authored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that enshrined in law a commitment that American interrogators would not employ "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of detainees anywhere in the world. The administration had vigorously opposed the amendment, which Bush signed into law on Friday. He said he was satisfied by additional language assuring that interrogators could not be sued by terror suspects.
Some of Bush's advisers say they believe that revolt was partly the result of weak leadership in the House, where Rep. Tom DeLay has stepped down from his leadership position while under indictment, and in the Senate, where Bush was abandoned by leaders of his own party on the McCain amendment.
But they see in Alito's confirmation battle and the Patriot Act a chance to rally their base. A senior administration official, speaking on the condition that he not be named because he was describing a strategy still in flux, said that they believed that while the fight over Alito would be much fiercer than the battle to confirm Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., "we're now convinced we'll prevail, probably pretty quickly."
Winning passage of the Patriot Act, however, will be trickier, especially at a moment that the president is accused of circumventing existing law that places checks on the administration's power to both trace and monitor calls inside American borders. Two officials said that discussions are under way about beefing up some form of congressional oversight of investigations conducted under the Patriot Act, in hopes that that will bring enough moderate Republicans on board to win passage. Bush reluctantly agreed to a five-week extension of the existing law, which he signed this week.
"At this point, one of the keys for the president's strategy, I suspect, is to look for an early success, and build on that," said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton professor who has written extensively on Bush's strategy. There is also considerable risk for a president who only a month ago found his approval ratings hovering around 35 percent. They have bounced back up after his series of Iraq speeches and, as White House officials note, the rapid decline in gasoline prices. A New York Times/CBS News Poll conducted Dec. 2-6 put his approval rating at 40 percent, up from 35 percent a month before, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted Dec. 15-18 showed a more marked increase to 47 percent.
Nonetheless, his options are limited by Iraq, where there is still concern that some Republicans may join the call for a pullout as midterm elections approach, and the fact that the moment appears to have passed for big initiatives that were a cornerstone of his re-election campaign, including an overhaul of the Social Security system.
William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, who helped lead the Republican revolt that forced Bush to withdraw Harriet E. Miers as a nominee for the Supreme Court in the fall, said that in most years January is a month for planning the State of the Union speech and laying out the year's agenda. But this January, he said, is different.
"The notion that Bush could or should unveil a new domestic agenda at the State of the Union speech is really ridiculous," Kristol said. "He has to play the cards he has been dealt and play a winning hand with those cards," on issues including the war in Iraq, the linked debate over the Patriot Act and wiretapping at home, and the Alito nomination.
Kristol argued that the president had already come back substantially from October, when he was mired by the slow response to Hurricane Katrina, then by the Miers nomination, and then the indictment of White House aide I. Lewis Libby. "It looked like he was really reeling, but I think he has righted the boat," Kristol said.
And he contended that by equating withdrawal with defeat, Bush had for now beaten back the movement that crested a few weeks ago when Rep John P. Murtha, D-Pa., called for some form of a pull-out from Iraq.
Others agree. "I think that the Democrats made a huge miscalculation with the Murtha speech; it moved the debate from 'Did the president lie?' to 'What do we do now?"' said Charles Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst in Washington. "And that moved the spotlight from a horrible place for the president to not a bad place at all. But only for a while."

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