Bush Tries to Gain Control of Agenda

The White House is struggling to pursue President Bush's broad agenda that includes new health-care, energy and education initiatives as rising opposition to the Iraq War threatens to drown them out.

On Capitol Hill, the battle looming within Congress is over which bill opposing the administration's planned troop increase in Iraq will succeed -- not whether any will win.

On the National Mall that leads from the Capitol to the White House, the first protesters are already gathering for a massive anti-war rally this weekend. And in federal court, former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby is on trial over the administration's effort to discredit an early critic of the war.

The frustration showed on Bush's face this morning, as he spoke perhaps more bluntly than ever about his new policy.

"I had to come up with a way forward that precluded disaster," Bush told reporters in a brief appearance with Gen. David Petraeus, approved today as the top commander on the ground in Iraq.

"I know there is some skepticism and some pessimism. … Some are condemning the plan before it even has a chance to work," Bush said.

In a separate interview recently, Vice President Dick Cheney expressed increasing pique.

"I think it's far too soon for the talking heads on television to conclude that it's impossible to do, it's not going to work, it can't possibly succeed," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer of the president's revamped plan for Iraq.

Pressed again, he targeted the media, saying, "Well, Wolf, if the history books were written by people who have, are so eager to write off this effort, to declare it a failure, including many of our friends in the media, the situation obviously would have been over a long time ago."

White House veterans and analysts say the signs suggest a bunker mentality for a White House frustrated over its efforts to govern and pursue a broader agenda when the administration seems to face criticism of the Iraq War at every turn.

Joe Lockhart, a spokesman for President Clinton, recalled the challenge of trying to govern as the president's agenda was overshadowed by an affair with intern Monica Lewinsky that led to an impeachment that ultimately failed.

"When things aren't going well and you have absolute faith in your approach, which I think the president and the vice president have, however misguided that might be, it is difficult to see the answer and to see the world allied against you," Lockhart said in an interview. "When two-thirds of the country wakes up every day thinking you're doing something wrong, it's pretty hard to change that situation."

Bush's approval ratings have fallen below 30 percent, the lowest of his presidency and below Clinton's lowest ebb. When the president's prestige drops, Lockhart said, so does his ability to govern.

"Politics is about power, and governing is about the exercise of power," Lockhart said. "And you gain power through public support. The president's idea when he has 80 percent job approval seems brilliant to Congress. The same idea seems moronic when the president has a 20 percent approval rating. The idea itself -- it doesn't matter how good it is."

White House insiders, speaking on condition of anonymity, say an intense sense of war fatigue has set in.

Some cite a sense of regret and self-recrimination among White House officials who have evolved from a sense of being unjustly persecuted to a sense that the administration itself made critical mistakes in the conduct of the war that have contributed to the media and public lament.

Joel Kaplan, the White House deputy chief of staff, stammered and showed visible signs of difficulty when ABC's Ann Compton asked him before this week's State of the Union address what President Bush could say to turn around public perception on the war.

"Well, uh, there is always a challenge in time of war to keep reminding Americans of the stakes. Americans are understandably troubled about what they are seeing on their television sets," Kaplan said. "They want to hear how it's part of a broader struggle that is going on."

There are two ways to recover from public disapproval that overshadows the administration's agenda, Lockhart said. The first is to slowly work to curry public favor by pursuing your agenda.

"I think every reporter in town was convinced that we couldn't get anything done because we were so distracted by the Lewinsky matter, that we couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time," Lockhart said. "We made a virtue of not being distracted by the impeachment."

The second way to recover, Lockhart said, is to wait for an outside event to change the dynamic of public opinion.

That's what ultimately helped Clinton when, in Lockhart's words, Republicans in Congress "overreached" in a budget showdown with Clinton that ultimately shut down Congress. Clinton's approval ratings were buoyed by a public that felt the GOP had gone too far.

"Sometimes you need an event to reshuffle the deck, and I think shutting down the government in a large way reshuffled the political deck in Washington," Lockhart said. "There's no reason to believe that through hard policy work or some outside event the deck doesn't get shuffled here."