WASHINGTON – In the late 19th century, the queen of England sent the president of the United States a desk made from the timbers of a decommissioned ship, the HMS Resolute. Almost every occupant of the White House since then has made the Resolute his desk. Perhaps more than most, President Bush has taken its name to heart.
But now, as Bush rethinks his strategy in Iraq and approaches one of the most fateful moments of his presidency, he confronts difficult questions: At what point does determination to a cause become self-defeating folly? Can he change direction in a meaningful way without sacrificing principle?
For Bush, this is a tension that goes to the heart of his political identity and governing style. He captured and retained the presidency in part by portraying two successive Democratic opponents as finger-in-the-wind politicians without a core set of beliefs. The notion of bending to critics or even popular will cuts against his grain. Yet it is also true that at key moments in his career, Bush has been willing to abandon his position and shift gears dramatically.
No position has been more central to Bush’s leadership than his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and his unyielding defense of his conduct of the war. But he went out of his way last week to give the appearance of a man genuinely seeking new ideas as he shuffled between the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon’s ultra-secure “tank,” and then delayed making a decision while he and his team debated the options.
“I think George W. Bush is a totally pragmatic politician,” said former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which recommended a new course. “He’s going to do outreach… . He is a total realist. He knows that the solid, march-in-step Republicans, at least in the House, are gone… . Now his legacy depends on the national interest, not partisanship.”
Others don’t buy it. On its Web site last week, the Democratic National Committee said Bush could be “the most stubborn man on Earth” for not immediately embracing the study group’s plan. Critics predicted any new strategy he announces after the holidays will be little more than a dressed-up version of “stay the course.” And a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 66 percent of Americans do not think Bush is willing to change his policies in Iraq.
“I just don’t believe that this president, with this vice president whispering in his ear every moment, is oriented to change,” said retired Col. Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell in Bush’s first term. “And even if he were, I don’t believe his administration is capable of implementing change.”
Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official under President Reagan, agreed. “When it comes to Iraq, he has basically confused stubbornness with steadfastness,” said Korb, who is now at the liberal Center for American Progress. “I think he believes that regardless of what other people say, if he simply stays the course, he’ll be eventually proved right. But what he fails to see is the current course isn’t working and he has options.”
The perception of Bush as unusually stubborn has defined his tenure to some extent, much to the consternation of adversaries and sometimes even allies. But Bush was deeply influenced by the fate of his father, whose decision to break his no-new-taxes pledge as president helped doom his re-election. The lesson: Stick to decisions regardless of shifts in political winds.
The seemingly unshakable confidence in the rightness of his positions has helped the current president weather political storms that might overwhelm others. For a man who presides over an unpopular war, just lost Congress and faces a final two years with constrained options, Bush gives little sign of self-pity. At holiday parties for friends and family in recent days, he has found himself bucking up others depressed by the turn in his political fortunes. “Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it looks,” he told one friend visiting the White House. “There’s a lot we can get done.”
Despite Bush’s reputation as unbending, he has reversed himself before in the interest of expediency. During battles over education legislation or funds for religious charities, he changed key positions. Perhaps the most notable example was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which he strongly resisted until embracing the idea as if it were his own.
“He always starts out by stressing his maximum position and then doesn’t budge until he absolutely has to,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has watched Bush’s career for years. “He could conceivably be doing that right now.”
Advisers reject the idea that Bush never changes. ” ‘Stubborn’ is just a convenient characterization that’s not really accurate,” said Mark McKinnon, his political strategist. McKinnon recalled how Bush pivoted after losing the New Hampshire primary in 2000. “That was a serious blow, and we had to really redirect the campaign strategically. He recognized that we had to amend our strategy, and we did.”
Still, history shows that Bush does not change easily or quickly. For years, he ignored calls to fire Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, even when the idea was endorsed by his top aides. He waited to oust Rumsfeld until the day after midterm elections handed Congress to Democrats – too little, too late, in the minds of Republicans who grumbled that he cost them their majorities.
“He changes his mind all the time, as any thinking human being would,” said David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and sometime critic. “He probably changes his mind somewhat less than other politicians do, but he’s not set in concrete.”
Having said that, Frum said Iraq is too critical to waver on. “A lot of people want him to change his mind on the central decision of his presidency. And on that, he hasn’t, he shouldn’t, and he won’t.”