For Bush, Burdens of Office Multiply

Times Staff Writers

President Bush appears to have plenty on his plate these days. A global war on terrorism. Confrontation with Iraq. Crisis with North Korea.

Now, Bush and his advisors are heaping on more: a controversial $670-billion tax cut plan and an ambitious proposal for Medicare reform, which is expected to be a central focus of his third State of the Union address Tuesday.

Is this White House biting off more than it can chew?

"The risk is not to overreach," acknowledged White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "If you overreach, you can have a spectacular fall."

From the outside, the Bush presidency looks like it should be overburdened by foreign crises, not to mention the domestic goals it has chosen to tackle. Veterans of previous administrations say it's hard for the handful of top White House aides to handle more than one crisis at once.

"Historically, the White House can juggle one ball really well," said David Gergen, who worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations and has written a book on White House management. "A really good White House -- and this is a really good one -- can juggle two. If there are four or five, one usually falls."

"I wish it were only four or five balls," Bush's chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., said wryly. But he and the rest of the White House staff insist they have figured out how to keep all the balls in the air.

How? "We have a very disciplined staff," Card said.

Some observers think they already detect signs of strain. But inside the West Wing, even with the State of the Union address in its final editing stage, there's little obvious indication of overload. Unlike television's "The West Wing," White House visitors see no signs of frantically bustling aides, unanswered telephones or flared tempers.

Little appears to upset what one top aide calls the "predictable cadence" of a typical White House day.

"There hasn't been that much difference between now and six months ago," the aide said.

The president gets to work around 7 a.m. His first hour is spent reviewing his schedule and making phone calls to world leaders. He has a CIA briefing at 8 a.m., and an FBI briefing at 8:30. Most days he then goes to the Situation Room to meet with the National Security Council and his top foreign policy advisors: national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Plenty of Meetings

The rest of the president's day is less structured but filled with meetings. A few are public: a speech on a policy issue or ceremonies to honor exemplary Americans. Others are private: policy discussions with aides, personnel meetings to make new hires.

Bush's management style is to make strategic decisions and then delegate details to staff. As a result, aides say, he is very particular about the people he brings into his administration and spends a lot of time in personnel deliberations.

Bush wraps up his day at 6 p.m., retiring to his personal quarters with a briefing book on the next day's activities. The homework takes about an hour a night.

There is little variation in the schedule. Bush demands that meetings start and end on time. That's one reason the White House is able to handle the current workload, Fleischer said.

"Because he is disciplined and always on time, it forces it down through the system. Everybody else has to be disciplined, to get their work done and do it on time," he said. "No excuses."

Aides work an hour or two longer than Bush -- usually starting between 6:30 and 7 a.m. and ending between 7 and 8 in the evening. Bush has an intelligence briefing on Saturdays. But other than that, even now, weekends for him and his staff are usually free.

"I have to make sure he has time to eat, sleep and be merry," said Card, who controls the president's schedule. "Because if he doesn't have time to eat, sleep and be merry, his decisions might not be as good as they might otherwise be."

Staff members say this pace was set a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and has not changed despite the brewing war with Iraq and confrontation with North Korea. They insist it is sustainable, even if the country soon finds itself at war.

"We had a kind of baptism by fire because of the recount," said one top aide, referring to the voting problems in Florida that delayed the outcome of the presidential election in 2000. "We've never really had smooth sailing. The president's here to do good, big things. We've got a pretty seasoned, now-veteran team with a lot of the original people still here who have been tested."

That's a second reason White House aides say they can handle the heavy workload -- there has been only moderate staff turnover in the administration, historically about average for a White House at the two-year mark. The highest-level departure has been former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, who was forced to leave over policy differences, not because of burnout.

Another factor in the president's favor is Card, a practiced executive branch manager and Bush family loyalist who served as deputy chief of staff for the first President Bush. He is the one who makes sure policy aides don't put too much on the president's plate.

"I call it the test of needs versus wants," Card explained. "I like to tell people, 'If you need to see the president, you will see the president. But if you want to see the president, you won't.' "

Loyalty Counts

And finally, there is simply the ethos of the place. Bush aides profess a rare loyalty to the chief, and, what is rarer, they appear to abide by it. Disgruntled staff members are the usual source of leaks for journalists. Even the one insider account to come out so far -- a book written by former speechwriter David Frum -- sings Bush's praises. Bush's White House is still a place known for being able to keep a secret. That means that the administration rarely gets knocked off guard by untimely news stories.

"You have to give him very high marks for organization and discipline," said Gergen. "This is the smartest political team we've seen in a long time."

All the same, there are signs of at least some strain.

Citing the time pressures that kept them from their families, two top administration aides have left in the last six months: counselor Karen Hughes, perhaps Bush's closest advisor, and Mary Matalin, political advisor to the vice president.

Other signs of strain come in scheduling. Because of the multiple foreign policy crises, the number of full-dress National Security Council meetings has risen. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the council generally met three days a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Now that's up to four or five days a week. (A similar Homeland Security Council used to meet Tuesdays and Thursdays. Now, it convenes only on an as-needed basis, aides say.)

The more frequent meetings are possible in part because of a system known in White House jargon as "sivits" -- from the initials SVTS, which stand for Secure Video Teleconferencing System. When one or more of the "principals," as Bush's top aides are called, cannot come to the White House for the meeting, they can take part by sivits. This has been especially useful because the administration, mindful of post-9/11 security concerns, still is trying to limit the amount of time Bush and Cheney are in close proximity.

Some Things Dropped

A few things have fallen by the wayside. A long-scheduled trip to Africa in January was canceled, in large part because Bush wanted to stick closer to home during the Iraq crisis. Some visits to Washington by foreign leaders have been postponed or discouraged to keep Bush's schedule from becoming overburdened. And aides say some secondary foreign policy decisions have been put on the back burner, awaiting the all-important decision on whether the nation will go to war against Iraq.

Should that happen, warns William Galston, a former domestic policy aide to President Clinton, the Bush administration's vaunted discipline could turn into a liability.

"The president's management style is to define an agenda and stay relentlessly focused on that agenda. That may work if events don't shove other items on to the agenda," said Galston, now a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "This administration tends to be disconcerted when the rest of the world doesn't cooperate with the agenda as this White House has defined it."

He said this already seems to have happened, at least on North Korea.

"They were flummoxed by developments on the Korean peninsula," he said. "It was not part of the game plan and their efforts to improvise a policy on the fly were not terribly impressive."

As odd as it might seem, this may actually be a lull for the White House -- Congress has been out of session, and the canceled Africa trip gave the president more flexibility to his schedule this month. After Congress gets down to work this week and as the Iraq crisis picks up steam, the full stress of the situation may hit.

"There are already signs of slippage," said Galston, citing public opinion polls that suggest the public is skeptical of the president's economic program, unconvinced that war is necessary and anxious about North Korea. "The administration is losing ground on all three," he said.

Had they still been in the White House, both Galston and Gergen say they would have advised the president to set more modest domestic goals, at least until foreign policy concerns have quieted.

Fleischer defends his boss, saying that when the going gets tough, Bush prefers to up the ante.

"The president's approach is that a leader who take bold steps creates more followers than a leader who takes baby steps," Fleischer said.

That's a high-risk strategy, warned Gergen, especially in a year that may turn out to be even more critical for Bush's legacy than 2001.

"These folks are gamblers and they've done very well so far," he said. "But if history is any judge, one ball is going to fall. The juggling act has just started."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday January 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 604 words Type of Material: Correction State of the Union -- An article Sunday in Section A incorrectly described this week's State of the Union address as President Bush's third. It was his second.
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