After stepping off Air Force One in Atlanta last week and boarding a cherry red Ford Expedition near the front of President George W. Bush's motorcade, Karl Rove rolled down his window and leaned out to talk to a clump of Georgia Congressmen who had followed him across the tarmac and were looking for a ride. "Keep going!" the White House deputy chief of staff instructed the group, motioning them toward the gray staff vans farther back.
Rove was being playful, but he might as well have been rehearsing the motto for this battered White House, where change remains suspect, momentum is elusive and patience seems to be the only prescription. Just 16 months after the President's re-election, his Capitol Hill allies are in a funk, pointing fingers and worrying about their survival in November's midterm elections. Even Bush loyalists fear the Commander in Chief is in a hole with no ladder. When the Dubai company that the Administration had okayed to run several U.S. ports pulled out of the widely derided deal last week, the President escaped from a fight with a Republican-controlled Congress that had the public overwhelmingly on its side. In the long run, though, the company's withdrawal may turn out to mark the moment Bush became a lame duck. "The ports deal showed that the Congress is completely going its own way," said a presidential adviser. White House officials contend that Bush quickly realized the ports affair was a fiasco. "I know a prairie fire when I see one," the Texas rancher told an aide. The most politically injurious fallout could be new constraints on Bush's ability to play what had been his strong card--his national-security credentials.
In an acknowledgment that he needs to offer a more convincing message on Iraq, the President is scheduled to deliver a series of three speeches this month that aim at persuasion, a departure from his usual hallmark of repetition. Bush plans to describe U.S. efforts to develop new defenses against insurgents' improvised explosive devices and give town-by-town case studies of how his strategy for victory in Iraq is playing out. "It's not going to change people's anxieties," a White House official said. "What it will do is help provide a greater understanding of why these events are happening and what we're doing to try to change them. We talk about the strategy oftentimes from 30,000 feet. What we're trying to do here is say how it is actually being applied on the ground."
With little hope of getting much legislation passed in an election year, Bush plans to stay relevant through an aggressive schedule of fund raising and rally stops for Republican candidates, most of whom are still eager for presidential visits. One Bush adviser sees political promise for the President in a nuclear peril. "Certainly, there's going to be a serious showdown on Iran," he said. "He's very relevant on that, and that may help his numbers a little bit."