BUCKING HIS REPUTATION AS A PRESIDENT WHO GETS INVOLVED ONLY IN THE LATER STAGES OF LEGISLATIVE BATTLE, BUSH IS WORKING HARD TO SELL HIS NEW AGENDA TO CONGRESS--AND THE PUBLIC

Both proposals landed on Capitol Hill with a resounding thud, described by some members of the president's own party as "dead on arrival." While their public show of confidence is still high, some White House officials appear blindsided by the opposition to what one of the most ambitious second-term agendas by a president in recent history. "There's always a certain level of posturing," a White House adviser told NEWSWEEK. "We'll just have to ride it out."

Bush, meanwhile, isn't sitting idle. Bucking his first-term reputation as a president who gets involved only in the later stages of legislative battle, he has stepped up his outreach to members of Congress, especially those in his own party. On Tuesday, he met privately with a group of House Republicans still on the fence about his Social Security package--the sixth time in three weeks that he has hosted GOP lawmakers to discuss the subject. Last month, he wooed the Congressional Black Caucus, and in recent weeks, he's been inviting congressional lawmakers over for dinner. On Monday, he dined with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

The full court press isn't confined to Washington. Last Thursday, the morning after his State of the Union Message, Bush took off on a five-state campaign swing to sell his Social Security overhaul to the public. Yet the campaigning began well before the president's first stop in North Dakota. That morning, 31,000 feet above the snowy Ohio River Valley, Bush pressed his case personally to one of the lawmakers invited along for the ride on Air Force One: Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, a moderate Democrat up for re-election in 2006.

The White House believes Conrad and other moderate Democrats might be willing to switch sides on Social Security. According to aides, Bush spent more than 90 minutes of the two-hour flight to Fargo, N.D., talking to Conrad. Yet afterward, the North Dakota senator said he still wasn't convinced. "I think there is a kernel of a good idea [in the president's approach], but not if it's financed by massive borrowing and not if it means deep cuts in benefits," Conrad told NEWSWEEK, shortly after leaving the plane.

On Friday, Bush turned the charm offensive on another moderate Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. At a Social Security rally in Omaha, Bush announced to the audience of nearly 10,000 that Nelson is "a man with whom I can work--a person who's willing to put partisanship aside to focus on what's right for America."

Nelson and the state's other senator, Republican Chuck Hagel, met with Bush before the rally, causing the usually punctual president to arrive on stage more than 15 minutes late. Afterward, Nelson was invited to join Bush and strategist Karl Rove in the presidential limo for the 10-minute ride to the airport to further discuss Social Security. Along the way, Bush coined a new nickname for Nelson: "The Benator."

Yet Nelson paid an unusual price for that last-minute face time with the president. As Air Force One departed Omaha, the Nebraska senator found himself stranded at the airport and, according to the Omaha World-Herald, had to catch a ride back to town with a stranger driving an '89 Buick. Of his conversation with Bush, Nelson says, "I didn't feel any political pressure."

Ironically, Nelson seemed far less apprehensive about Bush's proposal than Hagel, who, just minutes after meeting with Bush in Omaha, told NEWSWEEK that the president's plan made him "a little nervous." He said Bush should take a "slower approach" to fixing Social Security. "I think the president is exactly right in calling for reform, but it's going to be a tough sell," said Hagel. "It's politically risky for him and maybe for others who support him."

Yet that political risk is something that has long fueled the president's ambitions. On the issue of Social Security, he seems willing to bet most--if not all--of his political capital on reforming the federal retirement system. While most second-term presidents have been dismissed as a "lame duck" sooner rather than later, Bush hopes to reverse this trend by getting the public strongly behind him even while the Congress isn't. That means barnstorming tours of the country, like the rallies last week, will likely be a fixture of the next four years, especially when it comes to domestic issues.

"I'm going to spend a lot of time traveling our country," Bush said of his Social Security campaign during last week's trip to Fargo. "I fully understand that in the halls of Congress, if people do not believe we have a problem, nothing is going to happen."

As with members of Congress, Bush has a long way to go when it comes to selling the public on Social Security reform. Last month, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 40 percent of Americans thought it was a good idea to allow future retirees to invest in personal retirement accounts in exchange for reduced benefits, while 55 percent thought it was a bad idea. According to the latest poll conducted over the weekend and released Tuesday, there's been no change. This, in spite of the president's rising approval rating, recorded as 57 percent by the same poll. It's Bush's highest approval rating since January 2004, when he reached 59 percent in the weeks after Saddam Hussein's capture. (In contrast, the latest NEWSWEEK poll found Bush's approval rating at just 50 percent, well below the rating for other two-term presidents at this point.)

Meanwhile, the man in charge of Bush's strategy on Social Security--and just about everything else--has formally expanded his influence at the White House. On Tuesday, it was announced that Karl Rove, the president's most influential adviser and the chief mastermind behind his election victories, has been promoted to White House deputy chief of staff. In addition to retaining his current role as the president's top political strategist, Rove will now coordinate the policy of the National Security Council, National Economic Council, Homeland Security Council and Domestic Policy Council.

"He is one of the president's most trusted advisers, who has played an integral role in strategy and policy development for a long time," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday. "So now he has a more expanded role."

The promotion reinforced what some already believed--that Rove was behind all of the White House's major decisions and that the line between the administration's policy and politics was very thin. Within an hour of the announcement, the Democratic National Committee issued a list of "Roveian dirty tricks and skullduggery" with the headline YOU PROMOTED THIS MAN?

In other staff changes, the White House announced that Michael Gerson, Bush's chief speechwriter during his first term, will now be assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning. While Gerson will still be involved in the drafting of major policy addresses, he'll drop the day-to-day speechwriting in favor of advising on the president's "compassion agenda," including AIDS policy and faith-based initiatives, according to McClellan.