The emerging Bush blueprint begins this week with a preemptive strike on the mortgage crisis.
With Democrats planning to focus extensively on the economy for the remainder of the year, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson on Monday said a deal to freeze mortgage interest rates for many people in danger of defaulting was close to completion.
White House officials are considering additional relief for cash-strapped homeowners for debate early next year.
In many ways, White House officials have already turned their attention to the final year of the Bush presidency.
Still bedeviled by the Democratic majority in Congress and saddled with the unpopular war in Iraq — even given the apparent security gains earned through Bush’s surge policy — presidential aides are realistic.
They anticipate stalemates over Iraq funding, education, domestic spending and tax cuts.
Humbled by decisive defeats on immigration and Social Security earlier in the second term, the Bush team instead is looking for other areas of possible agreement, such as incremental changes to health care and new incentives for energy production.
“Our hope is that if we are proactive in pushing for good policy initiatives that are based on past successes, people will be reminded of earlier successes and any ‘legacy’ implications will be a byproduct,” one of the officials said. “We are looking forward, not back.”
The two White House officials intimately involved in crafting next year’s strategy asked for anonymity to discuss internal planning.
Bush appeared in the Rose Garden on Monday and called on Congress “to support our troops and to protect our citizens, prevent harmful tax increases and responsibly fund our government.”
“They have just two weeks to go before they leave town again,” he said. “That’s not really a lot of time to squeeze in nearly a year’s worth of unfinished business.”
It does not appear the domestic front will be the central focus of efforts to repair Bush’s tattered image. Instead, Bush speaks privately of a very heavy focus on Africa, the possibility of Middle East peace and Iraq.
A planned highlight of Bush’s final year in office is a weeklong tour of the three major regions of Africa, where Bush will call on the world — and his successor — to continue the attention and funding he lavished on the continent with his President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, one of the few fruits of his campaign promise of compassionate conservatism.
The official said Bush’s message during a major address in Africa will be: “I may not be here next year, but what we’re doing here needs to keep going.”
A surprising amount of next year is already blocked out, in part because of the three or more international summits that Bush needs to attend, as well as a jaunt to the summer Olympics in Beijing.
Subtract two weeks for the national party conventions, and time already looks short.
Aides say Bush’s political fundraising travel will be concentrated in the first quarter of the year, with much of his time spent going to party functions — including national campaign committee events out in the country — as opposed to making appearances for individual candidates.
They said Bush is not welcome in every state and district but that they received a steady stream of invites to fire up the base around the nation.
At the end of a year that, until recently, has been notable for discouraging poll results and setbacks in Iraq, White House offiials say they now see “changing fundamentals” that will give them a stronger hand with Congress and an updraft with a skeptical and even hostile public.
It’s been a long time since the staff has been able to go on the offensive.
But improving conditions in Iraq and reports from Democratic lawmakers that the war is ebbing as an issue with their constituents have given the White House a fresh optimism about not entering 2008 with a weak hand.
Bush aides predict that his poll numbers will rise before the ’08 election, following the improvement of security in Iraq plus the modest but specific commitments to negotiations by Israeli and Palestinian leaders at the U.S.-led Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., last week.
As a centerpiece of next year’s international agenda, White House officials hold out hope that, sometime in the next year, the new agreement will turn into concrete steps toward peace that will put Annapolis in the history books alongside the Israel-Egypt Camp David Accords signed following secret negotiations brokered by President Jimmy Carter.
That optimism is ironic, given Bush’s decision to pay little personal attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during much of his presidency.
And diplomats in the region are not nearly as hopeful as the White House seems to be about a significant breakthrough.
Giving Bush hope for better luck on war-funding measures, Democrats are increasingly bailing on their previously held view that the troop surge in Iraq has been a “failure,” although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) repeated Monday that it “hasn’t accomplished its goals.”
Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), one of the war’s top critics, stunned fellow Democrats late last week with his statement that “the surge is working,” though he added that political reconciliation has been lagging.
On the domestic side, Bush plans to mark the upcoming seventh anniversary of the creation of his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and plans to make more trips to highlight successful efforts to make federal social service funds available to religious charities.
Bush advisers are considering ways to call attention to scientists’ announcement, which the White House believes was lost in Thanksgiving week, about discoveries that could lead to the creation of stem cells without embryos — a vindication, in the view of Bush’s aides, of his reservations about approving broader federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
Sobered by legislative losses on issues such as immigration, the White House is increasingly focusing on modest initiatives such as the marginal improvements to the air-traffic system announced before the Thanksgiving travel rush.
“The [news] coverage of that was good, both before and after the holiday, and it actually helped make things better,” the official said.
Once, Republicans derided such limited initiatives as “Clintonian,” because President Bill Clinton racked up a huge number of them.
But now, the White House brags about them as points on the board.
Officials, while acknowledging a key part of their legislative strategy will be fighting objectionable measures such as tax increases, said they retain a slim hope that Congress will reconsider changes that Bush has requested for a renewed version of the No Child Left Behind education act.
“There is a possibility that leaders in Congress may realize that they need to demonstrate that they can get some things done,” the officials said. “They may have a greater impetus to try to do that next year than they’ve shown this year.”
Democrats say the president shouldn’t count on it.
Rather than running on the majority’s slim achievements, the party is considering an election message that boils down to: We need more Democrats to fight the Republicns.
Politico’s Martin Kady II contributed to this story.