- The Washington Times - Monday, December 12, 2005

President Bush is returning to his conservative agenda after being distracted from his message the past few months by hurricanes, an anti-war mother and a failed Supreme Court nomination.

The White House, which already is planning next month’s State of the Union address, is preparing an agenda that will highlight progress in the Iraq war, economic expansion, immigration reform, tax cuts, tax-code reform and spending restraint.

“What you will see more of next year is the president going back to the basics — winning the war and growing the economy and creating jobs,” White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy said.

“The president certainly spent the last week doing that and will do so next year. He is going to go back to the basics.”

The president and his team of communications advisers actually got back to basics when they were half a world away last month during a trip to Asia. The White House went on the offensive on Iraq, rebuking a Democratic congressman for suggesting that U.S. forces be withdrawn from Iraq immediately.

But last week, Republicans on Capitol Hill told Mr. Bush at a congressional retreat that the administration was losing the message battle. The next day, Mr. Bush made an unscheduled statement in the White House Rose Garden about positive economic news, which included strong job gains and falling gasoline prices.

The president then delivered the second of four scheduled speeches to detail the White House strategy for victory in Iraq before the fledgling democracy’s elections Thursday, citing specific progress.

The strategy appears to have paid off. A New York Times-CBS News poll conducted Dec. 2-6 showed the president’s approval rating at 40 percent, up from 35 percent in October.

“He’s winning back some of the Republican base and some independents,” said John Zogby, an independent pollster. “Why? More so than the economy or gas prices, it’s the fact that he’s taken the offensive on the war.”

Republican strategist Charlie Black said the poll numbers went up because of a “renewed focus and concentration on speaking to their agenda.”

Gary Bauer, president of the nonprofit organization Americans Values, said Mr. Bush’s approval ratings rose “because he’s put victory back on the table in Iraq.”

“He has nothing to fear from the anti-war movement,” Mr. Bauer said. “If he is willing to continually make the case, as well as do the things necessary militarily to win, the political danger will be to the Democrats and not to the president.”

Mr. Black said senior White House officials are “having a lot of discussions right now with the Republican leadership in Congress to try to figure out a common agenda, but I think one thing you can predict for sure is, immigration reform at the very top of the list; hopefully, coming up with legislation with an emphasis on border control.”

“He’s going to present a very austere budget, and there’ll be a lot of emphasis on spending restraint. He’ll continue to push to make the tax cuts permanent and abolish the death tax. I know that they’re going to go for tax reform,” Mr. Black said.

But Mr. Bush’s campaign to overhaul Social Security, stalled for months after a hard sell from the White House, likely will not move next year, Mr. Bauer said.

“I, for one, hope Social Security [reform] is dead. It’s too hard to explain to the American people, it’s clear the Democrats are not going to cooperate, and the thrust of their argument is that the system is doomed,” he said.

Mr. Bush, though, cannot look to Congress for much help on the rest of his agenda because all 435 House members and a third of the 100 members of the Senate face re-election next year. That means Mr. Bush likely will not push an aggressive agenda — but cannot afford to seek middle ground, either.

“We’ve already seen what happens when he tries to pivot to the center — the loudest voices are clearly from his base,” Mr. Zogby said.

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