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Polls Aside, Bush Is ‘On Offense,’ White House Says

President Bush’s approval ratings are still in the low 30s, but White House aides insist that he’s now on policy offense across the board. [IMGCAP(1)]

From Iraq to SCHIP to the budget, energy policy, trade, terrorist surveillance, the mortgage crisis and even prescription drug costs and student test scores, top Bush aides say that events are turning in his direction — and that they are trying to get the word out more effectively.

Indeed, there is some truth in what they say. For sure, developments in Iraq have taken a distinctly favorable turn, opening up the possibility that Bush could claim success for his policies by the end of his term.

Legislatively, Democrats have all but declared defeat in their effort to stop the war. At a luncheon with reporters last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) admitted that “when we said we would end the war, we never said that we had the veto pen or the signature pen. … I don’t disagree with the public evaluation that we have not done well in ending this war.”

With Republicans sticking by him, Bush has won the running room to pursue his policies at least until next March — and probably through 2008.

On the ground, Gen. David Petraeus’ “surge” strategy seems to be working, with Sunni Arabs decisively turning against al-Qaida and Shiites beginning to reject the Mahdi Army militia of Muktada al-Sadr.

U.S. casualty levels are down to their lowest levels since 2003, Iraqi security force deaths are at their lowest level ever, and civilian deaths in September were down 77 percent below the level of last year.

“Democrats are stuck in the negative” on the war, a White House aide said in a session with columnists last week. “They are without a positive narrative,” although he said — this was last Friday — that the media had yet to catch up with favorable developments.

But the administration’s “good news is no news” problem eased significantly this week when two of Bush’s harshest journalistic critics — Tom Ricks and Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post — wrote a front-page story headlined, “Al-Qaeda In Iraq Reported Crippled.”

That Democrats are still “stuck in the negative” was demonstrated by the fact that their frontrunning presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), is still quoting the ill-timed charge of Army Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, a former U.S. commander in Iraq, that the war is an “unending nightmare.”

If the war proves not to be an unending nightmare, after all, it would certainly be a boon for Bush — and would raise the question of whether Democrats can ever be relied upon to pursue a foreign policy endeavor if the going gets difficult.

Of course, the war is far from won — Iran is still fomenting mayhem — and, as yet, there is little indication that the public has caught up with the good news from Iraq. Bush’s approval rating on the war hung at only 30 percent at the end of last month.

Getting the word out about White House initiatives is now the job of longtime GOP operative Ed Gillespie, one of several remarkable hires — for the waning years of an unpopular presidency — overseen by White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.

One of Bolten’s other recruits, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, has been fashioning strategies to avoid allowing the subprime mortgage crisis to damage the whole U.S. economy. And Bush’s choice as attorney general, Michael Mukasey, is virtually assured of confirmation.

Part of Bush’s tactic for regaining the initiative is to use his veto pen aggressively — starting with the $35 billion bipartisan children’s health bill and continuing with various appropriations and Congress’ energy bill.

There is considerable demagoguery in the administration’s arguments against SCHIP and proposed Democratic spending — such as the Bush claim, repeated in his press conference on Tuesday, that families with incomes up to $83,000 would be covered by SCHIP.

Sponsors of the bill, including Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), have repeatedly denounced the claim, pointing out that while the measure allows New York state to pursue that level of funding, the administration is empowered to reject it, as it has.

The SCHIP veto and Bush’s threats to veto appropriations bills as “fiscally irresponsible” — even though they come in at only 1.8 percent above his own budget — are designed to encourage a demoralized GOP base.

Bush also is trumpeting the facts that the federal budget deficit is half of what it was two years ago and that in September job growth had continued for 49 months, a new record. He is using the fact that exports are now the prime driver of economic growth to push for Congressional approval of trade deals with Peru, Colombia, Panama and Korea.

In addition, White House aides point out, Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program last year cost $4 billion less than forecast owing to competitive forces that Democrats oppose and some school test scores are up, assertedly thanks to No Child Left Behind.

Bush evidently has convinced House Democrats not to complicate relations with Turkey by passing an Armenian genocide resolution, and the White House thinks it can win a battle over terrorist surveillance policy.

Add it all up and, as Bush said Tuesday, he’s far from irrelevant. But he’s still a long way from being a popular president whose record will help his party.

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