Wednesday, March 30, 2005

President Bush's New Public Face: Confident and 'Impishly Fun'

The New York Times
March 28, 2005

President Bush's New Public Face: Confident and 'Impishly Fun'


George W. Bush has been acting like a man liberated from the American presidency.

At an event in Denver last Monday, he mused that sending out quarterly statements for the individual investment accounts he wants to add to Social Security could encourage people to pay more attention to government but then chuckled that investors might conclude from tepid returns that "maybe we ought to change presidents or something."

At a news conference last week, Mr. Bush joked that he did not have the time "to sit around and wander, lonely, in the Oval Office, kind of asking different portraits, 'How do you think my standing will be?' "

And at the end of an interview with a Belgian television correspondent last month, Mr. Bush blurted out to the young woman that she had "great eyes," glanced away slyly and then a little sheepishly, but for the most part seemed sorry that the session was over.

Is this a new George Bush?

White House officials insist not and say that the frisky president people are seeing in public is simply the one he has kept private for the last four years. "In the first term he wanted to have the American people see his heart and his policy agenda and his seriousness, and not that he's an impishly fun, very clever guy," said Margaret Spellings, the secretary of education and the president's former domestic policy adviser.

But White House officials, Mr. Bush's friends and Republicans allied with the administration readily say that re-election to a second term has made Mr. Bush more confident in office and changed the tenor of his presidency as well. The president has been buoyed, they add, by the elections in Iraq and recent stirrings toward his hope of democracy in the Middle East.

One statistic is telling: since he defeated Senator John Kerry last November, Mr. Bush has held a solo news conference every month - still fewer than many previous presidents, but a big jump, if he continues the pace, from the 17 solo news conferences he held in a first term known for an iron curtain between the White House and the press.

"He could be the first president since Eisenhower to hold more news conferences in his second term than in the first," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University in Maryland who is working on a book about the White House communications operation. Professor Kumar said that scandals had made a number of second-term presidents more reluctant to face the press.

In foreign policy, Mr. Bush has softened his tone as he has tried to pick up the pieces after the American-led invasion of Iraq. The change in style has reflected one of substance, too, as the president has joined with the Europeans to offer incentives to one of his "axis of evil" countries, Iran, to try to get it to give up its nuclear ambitions. In domestic policy, Mr. Bush has begun to make small adjustments in his do-it-my-way rhetoric on Social Security and recently acknowledged, as his critics have long pointed out, that private accounts will do nothing to ensure the program's long-term solvency. His looseness in public sometimes results in the kind of sharp political calculation - Mr. Bush said at a news conference last week that he would not propose his own Social Security plan to Congress "because the first bill on the Hill is always dead on arrival" - that he more often kept private in the first term.

White House officials also say that Mr. Bush may be making more jokes in public, but he has not forgotten that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, happened on his watch. "The president still carries tremendous burdens," said Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff. "I see that every morning when he walks into the Oval Office and gets the overnight reports as to what's been happening in the war on terror. He has to make decisions in many more areas of responsibility than most people realize."

Still, no one disputes that Mr. Bush is more comfortable in the job. Roland Betts, the chairman of the Chelsea Piers entertainment complex in Lower Manhattan and one of the president's closest friends, recalls working out with Mr. Bush in the White House weight room in January and seeing a more relaxed man. "One thing he said was that 'I finally got the election out of my neck,' and he was rubbing his neck and shoulder as he said it," Mr. Betts said. As he has since becoming president, Mr. Bush gets massages most Sunday afternoons to relieve tension and muscle aches from exercise.

These days Mr. Bush's chief form of exercise is biking - he no longer runs since his knees gave out last year - and he has taken it on with the same aggressiveness as he did his old 6:45 miles. "He's turned into a bike maniac," said Mark McKinnon, a biking buddy of the president who was also his chief media strategist during the 2004 campaign. "He grinds, and he goes flat out from beginning to end."

Mr. Bush, he added, had lost eight pounds since the election. "He's as calm and relaxed and confident and happy as I've ever seen him," Mr. McKinnon said. Despite the beating he has taken on Social Security, other advisers say, Mr. Bush still presents a cheery face to the staff. "People are not walking around with their heads hung on Social Security," said Joshua B. Bolten, the White House budget director. "When we have our Social Security meetings, and those are often very detailed, substantive meetings, he's consistently upbeat."

Clay Johnson III, the deputy director for management in the White House budget office and Mr. Bush's roommate at Yale, had a simple explanation for the president's mood: "He never, ever has to run for office again."