President Changes Tune After Democratic Gains

President Bush spent his first day in a new political landscape, insisting he can work with a new, and hostile, Congress to get things done during his two remaining years in office. His first order of business was to announce the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm obviously disappointed with the outcome of the election, and as the head of the Republican Party I share a large part of the responsibility.

INSKEEP: Responsibility for losing his party's control of Congress. President Bush spoke yesterday after Democrats captured the House. By last night it looked like the Democrats might win the Senate as well. The Associated Press called the U.S. Senate race in Virginia a win for the Democratic candidate James Webb. If that result holds up, Democrats would have majority in both houses.

We have two views this morning on the change in Washington. First from the White House, where yesterday the president announced the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Here's NPR's David Greene.

DAVID GREENE: If someone wrote a book about what a president should do after his party gets whacked at the polls, one passage might go like this: Be nice, act humble, and say you got the message. In 1994, Republicans wrestled the majorities in Congress away from Democrats. On the morning after, President Bill Clinton had this script ready.

President BILL CLINTON: With the Democrats in control of both the White House and the Congress, we were held accountable yesterday, and I accept my share of the responsibility in the result of the elections.

GREENE: Yesterday, it was President Bush's turn to play the humble card.

President BUSH: When I first came to Washington nearly six years ago, I was hopeful I could help change the tone here in the capital. As governor of Texas, I had successfully worked with both Democrats and Republicans to find commonsense solutions to the problems facing our state. Well, we made some progress on changing the tone. I'm disappointed we haven't made more. I'm confident that we can work together.

GREENE: To strike this tone, it was almost as if Mr. Bush flipped a switch. In recent weeks he had been in full campaign mode. He insisted Republicans would keep control of Congress. He mocked Democrats who thought otherwise.

President BUSH: You know, we got some people dancing in the end zone here in Washington, D.C. They got 'em measuring their drapes. They're going over to the Capitol and saying, well, my new office looks beautiful; I think I'm going to have this size drape there, this color.

GREENE: Yesterday, a different President Bush. He suggested he knew all along his party was in trouble.

President BUSH: I knew we were going to lose seats, I just didn't know how many.

GREENE: And as for those drapes? The president said he brought them up when he called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to congratulate her.

President BUSH: I shared with her the names of some Republican interior decorators who can help her pick out the new drapes in their new offices.

GREENE: Reporters were onto the president. One asked Mr. Bush why he was acting so differently.

Pres. BUSH: What's changed today is the election's over and the Democrats won.

GREENE: Simply put, but just listen to the president from Monday night, the eve of the election, at a rally in downtown Dallas. He hit the Democrats hard, accusing them of trying to leave Iraq early.

President BUSH: They don't have a plan but they've got a principle. And the principle is, get out before the job is done.

GREENE: That was then. This is now.

President BUSH: I don't know how many members of Congress said get out right now - I mean the candidates running for Congress in the Senate. I haven't seen that chart. I, some of the comments I read where they said, well look, we just need a different approach to make sure we succeed. Well, you can find common ground there. See, if the goal is success, then we can work together.

GREENE: Working together with Democrats, especially in what's been a poisonous partisan atmosphere in Washington, is going to require more than a day of niceties from Mr. Bush. To get anything substantial done, he and Democratic leaders will probably have to develop far more trust and some level of rapport.

They are making an effort today. Mr. Bush has at least tentative plans to have Pelosi and her number two in the House, Steny Hoyer, join him for lunch. In fact, calling Pelosi and Hoyer was one of the first things Mr. Bush did on the morning after.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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