It's supposed to play host to kings, queens and the leaders of America's closest allies. Instead the East Wing's opulent state dining room will entertain a far more powerful group of guests this week: the 55 GOP senators who hold George W. Bush's second-term agenda in their hands. Along with lunch, the restive Republican majority can expect the president's staple diet of Social Security and Iraq. Just six weeks before Congress adjourns for the summer, Bush's message is simple: don't go wobbly. Yet for some of his supporters who are seeking an exit strategy at home and overseas, the prospect of another presidential pep talk isn't enough. "Hopefully the session we have will be an honest conversation," says South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, "about the mistakes he's made, about the mistakes we've made and about what we can do better."
To most Americans, there's plenty of room for improvement. The only thing worse than Bush's job-approval ratings is the dismal level of support for the legislative branch. Just 33 percent of Americans approve of the GOP-dominated Congress, compared with a lackluster 42 percent for the president himself, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. Before the numbers slide any further, Bush's aides and allies concede it's time to retool the message and reconnect with the American people. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas says the president is "frustrated"--but not defeated--by the lack of progress. "With all due respect to the polls and headlines, it doesn't deter him," says Cornyn, a close Bush ally. "I'd say it motivates him."
The White House and congressional Republicans blame each other for the public's frustration. "It's Congress that was focused on things that were irrelevant to people's lives, like changing the rules of the Senate and Terri Schiavo," says one senior White House aide, who declined to be named while criticizing the GOP-led Congress. "If they turn now to the things the president has put on the agenda, such as the energy bill and trade, that would actually improve not just our numbers but theirs, too." Yet Bush's relentless focus on Social Security has hardly proved popular, as more than 60 percent of Americans disapprove of how he's handled the issue. The result: Social Security remains stuck in the Senate, setting back other priorities such as Bush's ambitious plan to rewrite the entire tax code. That logjam might only worsen if both sides engage in what they expect to be a fierce battle over a possible Supreme Court vacancy at the end of this month.
Bush let his irritation with Democrats show last week, berating them for saying no to his proposals. "It is the philosophy of the stop sign, the agenda of the roadblock," he said. It's a familiar refrain; Bush used almost identical words to lambaste Al Gore as he accepted the GOP nomination in 2000. Bush's aides believe the old tactics can still succeed--because despite the GOP's woes, the opposition is weaker. "Democrats in Congress have 10-points-lower approval [than Bush]," says GOP strategist Matthew Dowd. "Whose shoes would you rather be in?"
Still, the most effective pressure on the White House comes not from its foes but its friends. Several years of international criticism of Guantanamo Bay yielded few concessions until GOP members of Congress started posing sharp questions about Gitmo's damage to America's image. A senior White House official and a senior European diplomat tell NEWSWEEK the administration is intensively discussing the return of Afghan prisoners to their home country for detention, as President Hamid Karzai has requested. "It was never the goal of the United States to hold these people indefinitely," said the White House aide, who, like the diplomat, declined to be named for fear of interfering with the ongoing Afghan discussions.
As difficult as Gitmo remains, it pales in comparison with the challenge of Iraq. Bush hopes to revive American spirits with the help of Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who travels to the White House this week. Bush's public message will be about the high stakes in Iraq and the unacceptable price of failure, according to aides who cite the Somalia withdrawal as a worst-case scenario. "The time for happy talk is over," says Senator Graham. "We're in the hard part of this war, and we're going to have to suck it up." Compared with the sacrifice of the troops in Iraq, bad poll numbers seem like a small burden to bear.