The Bush Battle Plan

For any White House aide, it should have been an easy crowd: a group of pro-Bush business lobbyists at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a short walk from the West Wing. But when chief of staff Andy Card delivered a preview of the president's 2006 agenda earlier this month, the audience grew visibly listless. One checked his BlackBerry for e-mails, while another furtively read her copy of The Washington Post. Several yawned. Instead of concentrating on the issues his business friends care about--like taxes or trade--Card spent most of his time on a single topic. "The war on terror must be won in order to be able to have this sound economy that you're part of," he declared. His allies were unimpressed. "No one is naive enough to say that we shouldn't care about Iraq," said one GOP lobbyist, who declined to be named so as not to annoy the White House. "But there are other priorities that also deserve some tending to."

President George W. Bush hasn't forgotten his friends at the Chamber of Commerce, or their wish list of tax cuts and immigration reform. But after the worst year of his presidency--after a slump in support for his Iraq policy, the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and a wave of worry about corrupt lobbyists--Bush knows he needs something smart to offer the anxious GOP majority on Capitol Hill as its members head home to face the voters this fall. So he's shelved the ambitious domestic agenda he launched a year ago, and gone back to the mantra that's worked so well in the last two election cycles: it's the war, stupid. Karl Rove fired the first shots at the GOP's annual winter meeting last week, and Team Bush will take the strategy to the streets this week in Kansas and at the National Security Agency. The latter site will remind the public of the controversy over Bush's decision to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant as he keeps an ear out for terrorist activity. But Bush's aides believe they can rebrand the domestic snooping program as "enemy surveillance" vital to protecting the country.

The well-worn plan is premised on the notion that three elections after 9/11, the Democrats still don't have an answer to that line of attack. "There's a national debate on what we're doing to protect the country," said one senior Bush aide, who declined to be named while talking about political strategy in advance of the State of the Union speech, slated for Jan. 31. "It's something we're very comfortable with, while the Democrats are dancing around it pretty gingerly." He's got a point. While some Democrats (like former veep Al Gore) have accused the White House of breaking the law, the party's congressional leaders have thus far merely demanded a full investigation into the program.

But will such a dog-eared playbook be sufficient? After a series of "listening" sessions with Hill allies last month, White House aides told members they wanted to do something "achievable" after last year's failure to overhaul Social Security and the tax code. In his State of the Union speech, Bush will return to his old idea of tax-free health savings accounts, hoping that will appeal to younger voters who can carry their savings from one job to another. And he'll tout the new Medicare prescription-drug benefits, urging seniors to stay the course despite early bureaucratic snafus that have left some without coverage. Tom Cole, a deputy House whip from Oklahoma who attended one meeting, told NEWSWEEK: "The real challenge for the administration in 2006 is to show follow-through, to show the American people that this government is competent and can get things done."

The biggest obstacle on that path may be the GOP's lobbying scandals. Bush called for "high standards for conduct of public officials" last week, and he's likely to talk broadly about reforming the federal budget in his State of the Union--including an attempt to limit pork-barrel spending. But the debate is complicated, his aides say, by a House GOP leadership contest between candidates with close ties of their own to lobbyists.

That may be one reason Andy Card shunned most of the agenda pushed by business lobbyists at the Chamber of Commerce. Instead, before he left, he described a poster of Uncle Sam hanging in the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: "It says we're at war. what are you doing to help?" Nobody expects the K Street crowd to swap their business suits for body armor. But Team Bush hopes they will re-enlist--and go once more unto the breach for their embattled commander in chief.