The Yuletide decorations at the White House are simpler this year. The gaudy tinsel and the 155,000 lights of 2004 have given way to a more natural look of Christmas trees decorated with white lilies and pink roses that are replaced as they wilt. Guests at the holiday parties are noticing a different tone to George Bush too. He has never liked the 26 receptions, the thousands of punishing or limp handshakes, the graceless requests for souvenir cuff links with the presidential seal. But at some of the smaller gatherings this year, Bush has freed himself from the photo line to circulate with an intensity his friends haven't seen before. An adviser who encountered Bush on one of these reconnaissance missions through the Red Room last week tells TIME, "He's listening a little more because he's looking for something new. He's looking for ideas. He wants to hear what people are saying, because something might strike him as worth following up on."
No one has written a playbook for the President who is trying to stop a second-term slump before it becomes a long slide to oblivion. The most successful ones in modern times have gone about it in different ways, depending on the forces that were arrayed against them. Dwight Eisenhower, confronting a hostile Congress, made his mark with his veto pen. Ronald Reagan rid his White House of the aides whose incompetence and duplicity had produced Iran-contra, and engaged the Soviet foe he had once called an "evil empire." After Bill Clinton got past impeachment, he did what he could by Executive Order and picked his shots with Republicans on Capitol Hill--for instance, demanding more education spending in must-pass bills at the end of the year--boosting his popularity at their expense.
But recalibration and retrenchment do not come naturally to this President. Bush recently rejected a draft of an economic speech because it didn't mention his now dead proposal to restructure Social Security. He is still steamed because his nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers for the Supreme Count imploded; he vented about it to African-American leaders who met with him last week to discuss racial issues and Katrina disaster relief--prompting one of them to gently remind him that it was not African Americans but conservative Republicans who were her undoing. His reading of late has tended toward military history, which offers the comfort that other wartime Presidents, notably Harry Truman, endured scathing criticism by their contemporaries only to be redeemed by history.
Advisers and friends say Bush has not let go of his faith in himself or his patented upbeat style. He still delights in nicknames: backstage last week before his big speech on Iraq, Bush called Richard Haass, chairman of the august Council on Foreign Relations, "Sheriff"--a play on the title of Haass's book, The Reluctant Sheriff. Pals visiting from Midland, Texas, this month thought they were there to buck up their old friend; instead, they found him relaxed and unperturbed. "The President believes he's serving at this time for a reason--that his instincts, experience and convictions are suited for big challenges," says Austin-based strategist Mark McKinnon. Or as Bush has put it, the job is "to make a difference, not to mark time."