The Oval: A Changed Bush Visits Asia

"Stay the course" may have been the slogan that killed the GOP and President Bush in 2006. But Bush still has the capacity to change, and the political sense to know that he needs to adapt to survive the last two years of his presidency.

Take the start of his current weeklong trip to Asia. On previous trips, Bush has shunned cultural events, preferring to plunge straight into his business meetings with foreign leaders. In foreign interviews, he has often blamed his scheduler for leaving no time to show his interest in the countries he visits. In reality, his aides have long complained they couldn’t convince him to carve out time in his schedule to win some easy goodwill for his presidency and the United States.

That pattern was broken this week. The president’s first stop in Singapore on Thursday was the Asian Civilizations Museum—even before he visited the U.S. Embassy, which is normally his first port of call. There he and the First Lady walked through exhibits, including one about the Islamic world, before listening to a group of traditional musicians. The president even tried one of the instruments for himself—a saron, or Asian xylophone.

A goofy moment? Maybe to American eyes. But these gestures have great meaning to foreign nations that may suspect, or believe, that the United States is too powerful to care about them.

It wasn’t the only concession to the rest of the world’s concerns. Bush later delivered his main speech of the trip at Singapore’s National University. Where he used to dwell on terrorism at the top of his speeches, Bush first mentioned three issues that figure far higher on the Asian agenda: trade, energy and disease.

“In this new century, America will remain engaged in Asia, because our interests depend on the expansion of freedom and opportunity in this region,” he declared. “In this new century, our trade across the Pacific is greater than our trade across the Atlantic, and American businesses see a bright future in your thriving economies and rising middle class.”

He even promoted the idea of expanding a regional, multilateral group instead of the bilateral relationships he has cultivated for most of his presidency. Bush said he supported the expansion of APEC (the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum) into a free-trade group for the region. (He next travels to Vietnam for the APEC leaders' summit.)

These are small but important changes in the president’s rhetoric. For years, America’s allies have complained that the president seems obsessed with terrorism at a time when there are far bigger challenges and changes in the region—mostly as a result of China and India’s economic transformation. Bush’s speech didn’t generate big headlines back home, but it was still a significant shift in his approach to the rest of the world.

Of course for most of his critics back home, there are only two shifts that really matter: his approach to Congress and his approach to Iraq. Some of the early signs are mixed. Yes, he has renominated a series of controversial officials who are unlikely to win support in the lame-duck Congress this year—never mind the Democratic-led Congress next year. Nominees like controversial United Nations ambassador John Bolton are hardly the best way to show the kinder, gentler side of the Bush White House. But on the other side, Bush has taken a series of steps since his election defeat that point to a different path.

When it comes to Congress, Bush has already moved toward bridging the gap with Democrats. For the last several weeks before the election, Bush’s aides readied a plan to move rapidly in case of defeat. In spite of their public position that they would retain control of the House, White House officials realized in private they needed to change gears in case they lost.

The prime mover in the change was chief of staff Josh Bolten. “Josh is very clinical about these things and said ‘We are going to hope for the best and plan for the worst',” says one senior Bush aide, who declined to be named while talking about internal strategy.

A small group of officials began planning for a Democratic victory in the House, and the firing of Donald Rumsfeld was a key part of that planning. The White House believed that win or lose, there would be calls from “unburdened” Republicans for Rummy to go. Either way, they wanted to control the timing of the announcement rather than wait for political pressure to build.

The planning included last week’s Defense announcement, as well as the East Room press conference. It also included several calls to Democratic leaders, some of which took the opposition by surprise. Bush woke up early the day after the election, and was determined to call the winners at 7 a.m.. His aides had to convince him to wait until 7:15 to call Nancy Pelosi, and he still woke her up after her late night of celebrations. He also called the leaders of the Democratic campaigns—Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel—calls that were not required by protocol. Emanuel, for one, was surprised by Bush’s call. “Wow,” he said, according to another senior White House aide who was present. “I can’t believe you called me.”

Such gestures may be relatively small. And they may not survive the new year, especially once the Democrats get stuck into their investigations of the war in Iraq. But for the moment, they are important signals of how the president intends to reinvent himself in the last two years of his presidency. If he doesn’t, he stands to lose what’s left of his influence in the twilight of his time in office.

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