White House Surveys New Political Landscape

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The White House wakes up to a new political landscape Wednesday, with the House controlled by Democrats, and Senate control still up in the air.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Some of the votes are still being counted, but whatever the final outcome, this is not a good morning for President Bush. He wakes up to a very different landscape in Washington for his last two years in office. NPR White House correspondent David Greene traveled with Mr. Bush in his final days of campaigning and last night as he monitored the returns.

And David joins us now. Hello.

DAVID GREENE: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So first question, David, was this a referendum on the president?

GREENE: Well certainly when it comes to the war in Iraq, I think we could say it was. This is the president's war, it was his decisions to invade Iraq; it's his policy and we've always said that this war and how it plays out is ultimately going to say a lot about the president's legacy. And at this moment in 2006 the war is very unpopular and voters went to the polls to send a message on that issue, and they sent a clear message.

And it will be interesting to see how the president responds to it. Other issues that voters said they voted on, like corruption that they saw in a Republican Party, not as tied to the president himself but certainly tied to his party. He is the leader of his party.

George W. Bush is not a guy who's used to losing. He won elections in Texas as governor; he's won several elections in Washington. But he was a politician who was used to working with a Democratic legislator back in Texas, and now we'll see if he is able to return and bring those skills back.

INSKEEP: Well, do you think this result caught him by surprise?

GREENE: You know, it's hard to say. I was with him on the campaign trail the last few days and the final day wasn't looking good. He went to Florida to campaign for the GOP candidate for governor, Charlie Crist, and Crist didn't show up at the event. He campaigned with John McCain instead. And Mr. Bush spent his final avoiding competitive races.

He was stumping in governors races that were already decided. It just seemed he was avoiding some of the real action in the campaign. And the White House was saying he was confident but you got the sense that they knew that polls were going against him. They probably knew that the situation was looking pretty bleak in the House.

And when they lost the House last night, Karl Rove, the president's political strategist, gave the president a call, told him. These were two gentlemen who are not used to losing, as I said, and Mr. Bush said he was disappointed. But they were looking at that point to the Senate, hoping they'd be able to hang on. And I think they're hoping they might be able to hang on now, even though the numbers aren't looking great for them.

MONTAGNE: Well, in case they aren't able to hold on to the Senate - and they've certainly lost the House - let's get back to what you just mentioned about the president working with Democrats. Any question of him operating differently now, the White House?

GREENE: Well, the big change is going to be the president won't have as much control over setting the agenda on Capitol Hill as he did when Republicans were in charge. He might have to take up some issues that Democrats want to take up, like raising the minimum wage is a good example.

But there's a school of thought that the president could figure out a way to benefit in some ways. One of the big issues he wants to bring up is immigration. And when it comes to a guest worker plan, for example, it was conservatives in the House who blocked him. It was a lot of Democrats who agreed with him. So potentially on an issue like that he might be in better shape. But we'll have to see.

MONTAGNE: And Mr. Bush has a news conference later today. What's he likely to say?

GREENE: Well, this is a president who rarely admits defeat, but I don't think he has much of a choice today. The White House never announces news conferences the night before. They did last night. I think it's a sign that the president's eager to get out there and put the best spin on this and try to establish himself in this new environment.

Mr. Bush is going to have to say he got the message from voters. But I'm really looking to see what he says about Iraq. He's always insisted that he is not going to change course. But here voters are saying we want a different course, and now the president has to respond to that in some way.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much.

GREENE: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR White House correspondent David Greene.

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