Paul J.Richards/AFP/Getty Images
President Bush answers questions from the audience after a speech on the economy in Sterling, Va., Jan. 19, 2006.
President Bush answers questions from the audience after a speech on the economy in Sterling, Va., Jan. 19, 2006. Paul J.Richards/AFP/Getty Images
President Bush's White House usually takes pride in its thick skin. The news media can do their worst and get no rise out of the man in the Oval Office. But in recent weeks we have seen an exception, a single media image that stuck in the craw of the president or others in his innermost circle.
That image was captured most memorably on Newsweek's cover for the week of December 19. "Bush in a Bubble" read the main headline, as a cartoon version of the president floated by, totally encased and adrift.
The idea that the president was out of touch had been abroad in the media, and in the general political conversation, since late summer. The story began with the long vacation in Crawford and the sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina. It gained currency with the ill-fated nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, and fed on each sunny assessment of bloody events in Iraq. It didn't help that the president seemed to have little visible reaction to his poll ratings hitting record lows.
Then Newsweek nailed the visual, and suddenly the bubble image was everywhere. Even in the conservative National Review, a cartoon showed Bush fretting over the Newsweek while the ghost of Ronald Reagan empathized.
For some of us, all this revived another ghost of politics past. In the fall of 1987, in the same week a presidential straw poll was being held in Iowa, Newsweek's cover pictured the senior George Bush, then vice president, on a yacht. The headline: "Fighting the Wimp Factor." Bush, the heir apparent for the 1988 GOP nomination, finished third in the straw poll and later finished third in the Iowa caucuses as well.
At the time, the senior Bush kept his rage at Newsweek to himself. But his son, George W. Bush, called the magazine to announce that its reporters would get no more cooperation from the Bushes. And in months that followed, the nation saw the senior Bush tackling as many macho tasks as possible — including backing an 18-wheeler across a parking lot in snowy New Hampshire.
The senior Bush managed to right his campaign in 1988, winning the nomination and the presidency. But no one in his family — biological or political — has forgotten. And this time around, the Newsweek jab seemed to have found that old, deep bruise.
"No, I don't feel I'm in a bubble," the current President Bush told Brian Williams of NBC News in December. "I feel like I'm getting really good advice from very capable people and that people from all walks of life have informed me and informed those who advise me. And I feel very comfortable that I'm very aware of what's going on."
From the day of that denial, the president and his team have worked to burst the bubble image. The president has not only stepped up his public schedule but softened the atmosphere at his events. Instead of phalanxes of uniformed personnel as backdrops, the new Bush event strives for homier settings. The president himself gets folksy, both in his remarks and in the Q & A. This week, at Kansas State University, he spoke and took questions for the better part of two hours.
Nor has the new mode been merely a matter of style. In these same weeks, Team Bush has gone on the offensive on many fronts at once. It's hard to imagine anyone thought of them as passive as recently as last fall.
While continuing to define the mission in Iraq as "the central front in the war on terror," the administration has defended its no-warrant domestic surveillance program by suggesting its critics don't care about American's safety. It has insisted that those who call wiretaps on Americans in America "domestic spying" are "simply wrong." The proper name is "terrorist surveillance program," because the person on the other end of the call is always a suspect from overseas. We are told that we should accept this as a given, without evidence, because the National Security Agency is made up of "good people."
The administration has also refused to release documents regarding information the White House received about damage in the first hours after Hurricane Katrina struck. Similarly, the White House refuses to reveal contacts between people on its payroll and the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
While aggressive in its own defense, the White House is equally eager to be seen as responsive to the country. This year's State of the Union is expected to be far more attuned to public attitudes than last year's model. Last year, the president stressed his ideas about changing Social Security. Those ideas did not match the public's priorities, however, and this year the president is expected to dwell on health care costs — an issue polls consistently find near the top among public concerns.
This year's State of the Union also finds the country more restive than it was a year ago. Polls show a large majority thinking the U.S. is on the wrong track. Overseas, the war rages on in Iraq while Iran threatens to go nuclear and the Palestinians turn to Hamas, a political party whose members the U.S. has regarded as terrorists.
So whatever role the Newsweek cover had in getting the White House to shift gears, it was none too soon.