Eagles rather than doves nestle in the Oval Office Christmas tree, pinecones the size of footballs are piled around the fireplace, and the President of the United States is pretty close to lounging in Armchair One. He's wearing a blue pinstripe suit, and his shoes are shined bright enough to shave in. He is loose, lively, framing a point with his hands or extending his arm with his fingers up as though he's throwing a big idea gently across the room.
"I've had a lot going on, so I haven't been in a very reflective mood," says the man who has just replaced half his Cabinet, dispatched 12,000 more troops into battle, arm wrestled lawmakers over an intelligence bill, held his third economic summit and begun to lay the second-term paving stones on which he will walk off into history. Asked about his re-election, he replies, "I think over the Christmas holidays it'll all sink in."
As he says this, George W. Bush is about to set a political record. The first TIME poll since the election has his approval rating at 49%. Gallup has it at 53%, which doesn't sound bad unless you consider that it's the lowest December rating for a re-elected President in Gallup's history. That is not a great concern, however, since he has run his last race, and it is not a surprise to a President who tends to measure his progress by the enemies he makes. "Sometimes you're defined by your critics," he says. "My presidency is one that has drawn some fire, whether it be at home or around the world. Unfortunately, if you're doing big things, most of the time you're never going to be around to see them [to fruition], whether it be cultural change or spreading democracy in parts of the world where people just don't believe it can happen. I understand that. I don't expect many short-term historians to write nice things about me."
Yet even halfway through his presidency, Bush says, he already sees his historic gamble paying off. He watched in satisfaction the inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "I'm not suggesting you're looking at the final chapter in Afghanistan, but the elections were amazing. And if you go back and look at the prognosis about Afghanistan--whether it be the decision [for the U.S. to invade] in the first place, the 'quagmire,' whether or not the people can even vote--it's a remarkable experience." Bush views his decision to press for the transformation of Afghanistan and then Iraq--as opposed to "managing calm in the hopes that there won't be another September 11th, that the Salafist [radical Islamist] movement will somehow wither on the vine, that somehow these killers won't get a weapon of mass destruction"--as the heart of not just his foreign policy but his victory. "The election was about the use of American influence," he says. "I can remember people trying to shift the debate. I wanted the debate to be on a lot of issues, but I also wanted everybody to clearly understand exactly what my thinking was. The debates and all the noise and all the rhetoric were aimed at making very clear the stakes in this election when it comes to foreign policy."
In that respect and throughout the 2004 campaign, Bush was guided by his own definition of a winning formula. "People think during elections, 'What's in it for me?'" says communications director Dan Bartlett, and expanding democracy in Iraq, a place voters were watching smolder on the nightly news, was not high on their list. Yet "every time we'd have a speech and attempt to scale back the liberty section, he would get mad at us," Bartlett says. Sometimes the President would simply take his black Sharpie and write the word freedom between two paragraphs to prompt himself to go into his extended argument for America's efforts to plant the seeds of liberty in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.