Bush's Season of Discontent

The commander in chief, known for a shoot-from-the-hip style of leadership, is in the midst of an uncharacteristic and very public advice-taking tour about Iraq. (Photo courtesy ABCNews.com)
The commander in chief, known for a shoot-from-the-hip style of leadership, is in the midst of an uncharacteristic and very public advice-taking tour about Iraq. (Photo courtesy ABCNews.com)

by Jessica Yellin, ABC News White House Correspondent

On his first full day at his Crawford, Texas, retreat, President Bush hit the bike trails hard -- pushing against high winds and speeding over wet trails for almost an hour and a half. When his fellow riders went off to recover from the workout, an invigorated president headed out to clear brush.

Bush has said that escaping into the rural landscape of his Crawford estate helps him clear his mind. No doubt he could use it.

Thursday, his full attention will once again be drawn to the looming decisions ahead -- should he increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq? If so, by how much? And what can be done to rescue his presidency in the eyes of the American public?

Bush currently has the lowest approval ratings of any president since Harry Truman. The public discontent stems largely from a widely held view that the president has mishandled the Iraq war.

The plan that's been floated as his most likely "fix" for the problems in Iraq -- a surge of 10,000 to 30,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq -- is unpopular with the American public. Only 17 percent would support such a troop increase.

Though Bush frequently says he's doesn't lead based on polls, he has made it clear that the devastating election losses his party suffered in November sent him a message.

"The election created tremendous pressure for the president to make a significant change in Iraq and in his presidency. He needs to change to show that he's responding to the deep discontent in the nation," said Sidney Milkis, chair of the department of politics at the University of Virginia.

Now, the president seems to be on a campaign to show he can and will change -- both in style and substance. The commander in chief, known for a shoot-from-the-hip style of leadership, is in the midst of an uncharacteristic and very public advice-taking tour about Iraq.

Bush says he's gathering input from advisors and even critics to form a new strategy for curbing the violence there. And the same president who has been accused by critics of rushing into war says he will not be rushed into a decision.

"The president wants to make sure that he's taking the appropriate amount of time and giving the appropriate consideration to all of the options before making an announcement," said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman, at a Crawford news conference.

The build-up to the January announcement of Bush's "new way forward" speech has created a sense of suspense around every presidential appearance. Veteran presidential advisor David Gergen told The Associated Press that the hype could mean expectations are too high for Bush to deliver. "He has built up expectations. People are saying, 'OK if you've spent all this time and effort on it, you better have a pretty darn good plan.'"

Milkis said Bush should hurry up and announce his new strategy, the sooner the better. "He has to stop putting off this address and speak to the American people. They're waiting for him to say something that shows he has a good sense of what's gone wrong in the past, and how to make things go better in the future.

"He has to show that he can provide leadership in the face of what he called an election year thumping," Milkis said.

The president seems undaunted. In a recent press conference, he declared, "We've got a robust agenda moving forward with the Congress...I'm going to work hard...I'm going to sprint to the finish."

And political observers say the president could reclaim some public support by working effectively with the Democrats when they take control of Congress in early January. The White House has already indicated the president is eager to work with them on immigration reform and energy initiatives -- two themes that could appear in his State of the Union address.

Bush is also likely to make another pitch for Social Security reform. Democrats -- eager to demonstrate effective leadership during the run-up to the 2008 election -- have their own reasons for passing bipartisan legislation with the president's party.

Still, given the years of rancor between Democrats and this White House, it may be hard to imagine a placid relationship. And the spirit of bipartisanship could sour once the Democrats launch promised hearings into the war, government contracts and some of the national security measures implemented since Sept. 11.

For those who believe it all comes down to Iraq, the president demonstrated his commitment to finding a solution by publicly announcing his national security powwow taking place at the ranch today.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were scheduled to arrive Wednesday. Vice President Dick Cheney, Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and national security advisors Stephen Hadley and J.D. Crouch will join them this morning for a meeting that could run many hours. The president is expected to make comments to reporters at some point during the day.

Milkis said the president still has time to recover, but not much. "These are extremely important years for President Bush, even though he's a lame duck. The next two years will determine if he goes down as one of the worst presidents in our history...or if he's remembered like a Truman, who was very unpopular in office but is now a highly respected president."

In the meantime, after his Iraq meeting, the president will have a few days left to bike at his Crawford ranch. Then it's time to show Americans how he's going to win them over. He's due to return to Washington on Jan. 1.

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