Four More of the Same

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, January 20, 2005; 11:51 AM

Beneath the fireworks, the pomp, the majesty and the extravagance accompanying President Bush's second inaugural burbles a seminal question: What's the difference?

Will Bush's second term be noticeably different from his first? Or rather, since it's impossible to predict what events he may be forced to confront, will second-term George W. Bush take a significantly different approach to governing than that to which we've grown accustomed?

As the Magic 8 Ball would say: Don't count on it.

Sure, Bush unleashed a surprisingly bold agenda after his first inauguration, in spite of his contested victory. And sure, he was surprisingly resolute after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 -- and took that resoluteness all the way to Iraq.

But since then, Bush's governing style hasn't really changed; it's solidified. And there are scant few signs that Bush sees his second term as an occasion for transformation. He's made it pretty clear that he sees it more like vindication, or even sanctification.

In a Washington Post news analysis this morning, Dan Balz and Michael A. Fletcher raise the possibility that Bush has changed, has learned from his mistakes and will govern differently in the second term. Yet even in their analysis the evidence is scant.

"President Bush is a politician with large ambitions and few doubts, someone not easily given to mea culpas. But in the run-up to today's inauguration, he has at least hinted at some of the lessons learned in office," they write. "From his relations with Democrats in Congress to his approach to the rest of the world, Bush has suggested he will try to strike a different tone -- without abandoning principles or policies."

They quote White House senior adviser Karl Rove: "The clearest and biggest way is he's grown to have a comfort with exercising the levers available to him. He understands the office better, he's comfortable with it. Second, he now has a series of relationships, internationally with [foreign leaders]. He knows them, understands them, he has taken the measure of them in a way you can only do if you're up close. Third, he is more acutely aware that while a president can set an agenda -- and it's vital you do so -- that history has a way of intruding on you. Things happen."

Balz and Fletcher write that Bush has expressed regrets about his inability to change the tone in Washington. But, they note: "Bush's Democratic critics will dismiss those statements as cosmetic at best, disingenuous at worst."

And only three pages away, The Post's Dana Milbank and Charles Babington see more signs of continuity than of change.

"President Bush and his Cabinet nominees have been sending a firm message as they kick off a second term: no mistakes, no regret, no comment.

"In testimony Tuesday and yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Condoleezza Rice, Bush's choice to be secretary of state, angrily rebuffed invitations to admit a foreign policy mistake during the first term. . . .

"Even by the standards of often tight-lipped White Houses, the Bush team's recent disinclination to explain itself has some Democrats and outside analysts saying Congress cannot conduct proper oversight and provide the public with sufficient knowledge of its government."

One person who believes devoutly that Bush has changed is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who tells Timothy Garton Ash of the Guardian that "Evolution comes from experience."

Blair tells Ash that in a learning process that started with Afghanistan, the administration has come to understand that "in the end, we can take security and military measures against terrorism but . . . the best prospect of peaceful coexistence lies in the spread of democracy and human rights."

"So has Bush become a multilateralist?" Ash asks archly.

Blair tell him that is it obvious that "if you are in the position of trying to spread values -- to give people greater freedom and democratic rights -- it is better to try and do that with other countries."

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "Bush's hair has become grayer and his face more creased during his time in the White House. But aides, friends and family say there are more dramatic, though perhaps less visible, changes since his first inauguration."

But Keen acknowledges that much of this is old news: "The most pronounced change in Bush can be traced to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which defined his presidency less than eight months into it."

And, she writes: "One characteristic that hasn't changed is Bush's aversion to self-analysis. He brushes off a question about how he has changed with a shrug. 'Ask Laura. I don't know,' he says. When he's told that his wife thinks he's become more serious, he replies, 'You know, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that.' "

Keen tallies up the Bush changes thusly: "The people who know him best say he's also more confident, especially when he's dealing with foreign leaders. He understands the potency of every word he utters. He accepts his loss of privacy. His sequestered life at the White House, Camp David and his Texas ranch has made his relationship with his wife even closer. And, increasingly, he's a man in a hurry, feeling greater urgency about the time he has to get big things done."

One Big Difference

If something is significantly different about the second term, it may be that the press has finally caught on to how Bush works.

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe that "after four years of underestimating the president, many Washington insiders say Bush's bold second-term agenda fits into a pattern: The president campaigns on issues that seem a bit ambitious even to supporters, builds public support even without a sweeping electoral mandate, and then sees his agenda pushed through by a team of political operatives, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, that most agree is the best of any recent administration.

"The only question on most people's minds is how long Bush can continue to dominate Washington this way, especially without either the wide electoral margin or very high favorability ratings that other recent presidents have had going into their second terms. . . .

"Political specialists point to three factors in explaining Bush's success: the loyalty and discipline of the Republican majorities in Congress; the skill of the president's deputies including Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and chief strategist Karl Rove; and Bush's ability to target, simplify, and frame issues in ways that connect with average Americans."

And even if Bush were to change, it might not matter so much. The die may already be cast.

Paul West writes in the Baltimore Sun that the second term will ultimately all come down to how the definitive act of the first term ultimately plays out.

"Bush's place in history will almost certainly be set by the course of events in Iraq, according to presidential scholars.

"Will future historians view Bush as a transformational figure, a visionary who brought democracy to the Middle East and boldly altered the balance of global terror for the good? Or will they see a Texas cowboy who recklessly led his nation into an ill-conceived conflict that left the world an even more volatile and dangerous place?"

The Second Term Curse

David S. Broder writes in The Washington Post that "if the portraits of former second-term presidents could speak to Bush, almost all of them would say, 'Beware what may befall you.' From Woodrow Wilson, who suffered a stroke and saw his dream of the League of Nations rejected, down to Bill Clinton, who had to survive an impeachment effort, the pattern has not been happy. . . .

"Rove and [White House Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua B.] Bolten say the topic has not come up in pre-inauguration conversations with the president -- not because of superstition, they say, but because Bush is so focused on the future.

"Rove offers explanations specific to each of the other two-term presidents to explain their comeuppances, insisting that he sees no historical inevitability to the pattern. Both say they see solid reasons for optimism."

But Broder also sees signs that augur poorly for Bush: "Democrats already are mobilized to fight Bush on this front. He faces more personal antagonism from the opposition party than most reelected presidents, a carryover from his two closely contested elections. If Democrats manage to defeat Bush on Social Security, it could solidify their voter base and embolden them in much the same way that Republicans were energized to take over Congress after they defeated the Clinton health care plan in 1994."

Writing in the Financial Times, Edward Alden describes the second-term curse, but concludes that "political analysts say Mr Bush has advantages over other recent two-term presidents. For the first time since Mr Roosevelt in 1936, one party now controls Congress and the presidency, meaning that he should be spared congressional investigations into alleged wrongdoing.

"Second, unlike many presidents who have sought to make their mark in a second term, Mr Bush's place in history will depend largely on whether he can carry through the ambitious agenda of the first by securing peace and democracy in Iraq and making permanent the largest tax cuts in US history."

Cheney, Woodward and Executive Power

Bob Woodward writes in The Washington Post about his interview with Cheney last month, to be broadcast tomorrow night on "Inside the Presidency," a documentary on the History Channel.

"Vice President Cheney said in an interview that the proper power of the presidency has finally been restored after being diminished in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate, and that President Bush contributed to the process by not allowing his narrow victory in the 2000 election to inhibit him during his first term. . . .

"The vice president has been at the forefront of an effort by the Bush White House to promote an expansive view of presidential power by frequently invoking constitutional principle in refusing to hand over documents to Congress or allowing administration officials to testify before congressional committees."

Cheney is critical of the War Powers Act, and told Woodward that the Constitution, which makes the president the commander in chief of the armed forces, provides sufficient legal authority to launch a war even if Congress votes against it.

"Former president Jimmy Carter, also interviewed for the show . . . said he worries about a new imperial presidency. 'I think nowadays, there's a tendency to isolate the president, to exalt the president, to make it almost unpatriotic to criticize the president,' Carter said. 'I think this is a trend that causes me some concern.' "

Four More Years of Cheney

Here's something that could be different about the second term: The vice president could be coming out from behind the curtain.

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "Given the broadest authority of any vice president in history, Cheney has exercised it aggressively but nearly invisibly. He assiduously avoided the spotlight in Bush's first term -- unless he was campaigning -- both because of his personality and because he did not want to overshadow the boss. His Cold War instincts made him the butt of jokes after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when he always seemed to be in what his staff called a 'secure, undisclosed location' to preserve the top echelon of the government in case of another attack.

"Now, administration officials say that Cheney will become increasingly visible as he lobbies for Bush's agenda and begins the White House's push on behalf of midterm congressional candidates, who will start raising money soon."

Allen finds one lawmaker who referred to Cheney as "the real woodshed." At the White House, they prefer to call him "a consequential vice president."

Here, by the way, is an Associated Press photo of Cheney enthusiastically showing off his boots at the Black Tie and Boots Inaugural Ball last night.

Four More Years of Laura Bush

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times that Laura Bush is revealing more of herself these day.

"In a 45-minute interview with reporters in Washington the other day, she continued the trend, allowing that she hates it when people suggest that her husband 'doesn't like to read or, you know, whatever.' She said the 41st president of the United States 'is the sweetest man you've ever known' and a 'wonderful grandfather to the girls,' while his wife is a 'terrific mother-in-law' but 'more intimidating, maybe.' . . .

"And she confessed that on the last day of the fall campaign her daughter Jenna announced that she and her sister, Barbara, would be joining their parents in an Iowa town, Sioux City, which Jenna pronounced 'Sigh-yocks City.'

" 'Don't put that in!' Mrs. Bush said quickly, as her listeners exploded in laughter. 'It was so funny. She was totally humiliated.'"

Ann Gerhart writes in The Washington Post: "Mrs. Bush intends to spend the next four years much the same way she spent the last four: using her prominence to champion literacy and education reform, preserve the nation's history, promote its arts and educate women about heart disease."

Stephanie Mansfield writes in the Washington Times: "She is admired and adored, even if her admirers can't quite explain why."

Four More Years of the Twins!

Ann Gerhart writes in The Washington Post: "The second time around, the girls are the only surprise we can hope for. At the 2001 inauguration, everybody was new. We waited to see if George Bush really couldn't dance (he couldn't), and we waited for Lynne Cheney to say something outrageous (and that stopped happening), and we waited to see what Laura Bush would wear.

"Now we know them all, and we know what happened in between, and we know we wanted steady leadership in times of change. But that doesn't slake the thirst for something a little dangerous, flirty and unpredictable. And that would be our First Daughters, from the Celebrification Wing of the Republican Party."

Four More Years of Karl Rove

Here's the transcript of an interview Rove gave NBC's David Gregory yesterday. Here's the video.

"Gregory: Why are people so obsessed with you?

"Rove: I think there may be a small number of political actors who need to have a myth to explain this president to them. So they have to explain his success as president by, you know, in essence holding others responsible for it. . . .

"Gregory: Where is Karl Rove on Election Night 2008?

"Rove: I'm, hopefully, sitting in the private quarters of the White House handing the phone to the president of the United States for him to congratulate his Republican successor.

"Gregory: Will you work for another candidate?

"Rove: No, not for president."

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorsed the nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state on a 16 to 2 vote yesterday after Democrats on the panel expressed deep frustration at her answers on Iraq and terrorism in two days of hearings.

"In a rare admission, Rice conceded that the administration had made some 'bad decisions' on Iraq.

Here's Rice's brief digression on that topic, from the transcript transcript of yesterday's testimony:

"Let me turn very briefly to the question of lessons learned.

"I said yesterday, Senator, we've made a lot of decisions in this period of time, some of them have been good, some of them have not been good. Some of them have been bad decisions, I'm sure.

"I know enough about history to stand back and to recognize that you judge decisions not at the moment, but in how it all adds up. And I -- that's just strongly the way that I feel about big historical changes.

"I'm being as straightforward with you as I possibly can."

As Kessler writes: "Rice did not cite specific decisions, though she pointed to a new office in the State Department tasked with managing reconstruction in war-torn nations. 'I think that's a lesson learned,' Rice said. 'We didn't have the right skills, the right capacity to deal with a reconstruction effort of this kind.' "

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "Senate Democrats on Wednesday delayed until next week the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state, a pointed but symbolic gesture of their skepticism about the administration's plans for Iraq."

Similarly, Eric Lichtlblau writes in the New York Times: "The Senate Judiciary Committee postponed a vote on Alberto R. Gonzales's nomination for attorney general on Wednesday after Democrats accused Mr. Gonzales of evading their questions about the Bush administration's policies on the treatment of prisoners captured in Iraq and Afghanistan."

What's Next?

John D. McKinnon and Christopher Cooper write in the Wall Street Journal that after inauguration, Bush will "immediately resume his campaign."

To overcome opposition to his strikingly ambitious second-term agenda, Bush "will turn to the same hard-charging machine that helped him win re-election. Republicans plan to stage what amounts to a permanent grass-roots campaign. Restructuring Social Security is now the president's top domestic priority," McKinnon and Cooper write.

"Many people surrounding Mr. Bush see this effort as part of a broader mission to create a clear Republican majority that could endure for years, perhaps even decades. Keeping the party's vast campaign apparatus humming between elections could help bring Republican gains in Congress in 2006, adding to those achieved last fall, Bush advisers say."

Jan Crawford Greenburg writes in the Chicago Tribune: "With an ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist administering the oath of office, Thursday's inauguration will provide a stark reminder that President Bush soon could be embroiled in what promises to be one of the biggest fights of his presidency."

Bush and the Lord

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times about Bush's "triumphant Christian conservative supporters. Thousands have converged on Washington to celebrate his election, which they see in part as a victory for the public expression of faith. . . .

"Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the inauguration 'absolutely religiously saturated.' "

Here's a Reuters photo of Rove attending the Christian Inaugural Eve Gala last night, which was thrown by the Traditional Values Coalition.

Here's another Reuters photo from the event, this one showing one of the Bush quotes flashed on the big screen at the gala: "I don't see how you can be president . . . without a relationship with the Lord."

Not a Good Feeling Out There

The TV shots today may suggest a nation full of optimism about the second term. But that won't capture the nation's true feelings, poll after poll is finding.

Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder write in the New York Times: "On the eve of President Bush's second inauguration, most Americans say they do not expect the economy to improve or American troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by the time Mr. Bush leaves the White House, and many have reservations about his signature plan to overhaul Social Security, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll. . . .

"Mr. Bush's job approval rating is at 49 percent as he heads into his second term -- significantly lower than the ratings at the start of the second terms of the last two presidents who served eight years, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. And 56 percent said the country has gone off on the wrong track, about as bad a rating Mr. Bush has received on this measure since entering the White House. . . .

"Still, as Mr. Bush enters what the White House views as a critical two-year window before his power begins to wane, the poll suggests that Mr. Bush's effort to lay the groundwork to reshape the Social Security system has had some success."

Here are the poll results.

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll on the eve of Mr. Bush's second inaugural shows the toll that economic turbulence, terrorist attacks and combat casualties have taken on the public mood since his first one. Fewer than half of Americans express optimism about the next four years, or substantial confidence that Mr. Bush has the right policies for the presidency."

Here are those results.

CNN and CBS found similar results.

Missing the Story?

Eric Boehlert writes in Salon: "This week's inauguration story came ready with two interesting news angles: the huge cost (in contrast with the dire situation in Iraq) and the unprecedented security. And in both cases, the political press corps, as has been its habit under the Bush administration, showed little interest in prying. In the days and weeks leading up to the event, the press has largely treated inauguration criticism as partisan and silly, making sure to give Bush backers lots of time and room to defend the unmatched pomp and circumstance.

"Yet according to a mostly underreported Washington Post poll this week, a strong majority of Americans -- 66 percent, including 46 percent of Republicans -- would have preferred a 'smaller, more subdued' inauguration, given the ongoing war in Iraq. In other words, Bush's overblown celebration ranks as one of the few political issues that most Americans agree on -- a phenomenon the press ignored.

"The press's timidity toward the White House has been on constant display since the election," he writes, pointing to fawning cover stories from Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report.

"Press coverage doesn't get much friendlier than that," Boehlert writes. "Perhaps the White House should consider it an inauguration gift."

© 2005