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Busy White House pulls out of post-election dumps

Times Staff Writer

For a lame duck, President Bush looked remarkably spry last week, announcing a series of policy initiatives that caught many in Washington off guard.

Ever since Democrats took control of Congress in January, the White House has seemed in something of a funk -- acting petulant when confronted with Democratic demands, irritated with the public focus on bad news in Iraq and the controversy over Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, and lethargic in coming up with new ideas.

But that changed last week. On Tuesday, Bush announced new sanctions against Sudan and a nominee for World Bank president who was quickly embraced by both parties and allies around the world.

On Wednesday, the president announced a summit with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and an initiative that he said would double spending on AIDS prevention in Africa.

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And on Thursday, Bush announced a new effort against global warming, saying he would lead a push to get the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases to commit to cutting back.

“I think it was a rare and good week for a White House who normally had too many problems either on the Gonzales or Iraq front to actually string together a series of news events with actual content and a theme,” said Gene Sperling, senior fellow for economic studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former advisor to President Clinton. “It’s probably one of the first weeks where they’ve defined the news content as opposed to having external or unfortunate events define it against their will.”

Whether any of Bush’s initiatives bears fruit remains to be seen. But in the short run, they signal that the administration is adjusting to new political realities at home and abroad and is working hard to remain relevant.

“I think we’ve had a very great week this week in announcing initiatives that the president has been building on over his time here at the White House,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Friday.

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The flurry of activity was pushed in part by the calendar, with Bush heading to Europe this week for the annual G-8 summit of world leaders.

Faced with international pressure to do more on global warming, the administration needed to at least shift U.S. rhetoric -- if not policy -- before confronting allies anxious about the president’s go-slow approach to the issues.

And with African development also on the summit agenda, taking the lead on AIDS prevention was a way for Bush to turn the focus from the quagmire in Iraq and highlight some less controversial foreign policies.

But other factors also probably played a role. One is that with Congress scattered around the country on its Memorial Day recess, Bush had the Washington news stage largely to himself.

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Perino denied that the administration was just getting up to speed after the Democratic takeover in Congress, saying the administration has been “on offense” since the president’s State of the Union address in January.

“We have certainly pushed on offense,” Perino said. “That’s how we like to play, and you’ll see more of it.”

But others, including administration allies, acknowledged that the White House has had to adjust to the new reality that without a compliant Congress, the president can no longer dictate political priorities.

Former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said it would be wrong to read Bush’s efforts on AIDS or global warming as a sign that the president was moving to the center or moderating his views.

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“I think it’s the same George W. Bush,” Fleischer said. “I think it’s simply his reaction to today’s environment.”

And while Democrats generally applauded most of his moves last week, they had harsh criticism for his efforts on global warming. In a news conference Friday, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) accused Bush of deliberating starting an initiative he knew he could not complete.

“A better way of putting what the White House said yesterday is that the president’s goals are not aspirational, they’re procrastinational,” said Markey, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee. “What the president wants to do is set up a whole new process that will end just as he is leaving office and pass this red-hot issue on to his successor.”

Presidential scholars say Bush may be underestimating how much his political capital has eroded -- in part because of Democrats’ new power, in part because of the drag that Iraq has put on his public standing, and in part because the new crop of presidential candidates is largely setting the policy debate.

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“I think these [initiatives] are well-intentioned last gasps of a lame-duck administration,” said Paul Light, an expert on presidential administrations at New York University. “I think the president wants to be relevant to the policy debates, but they are basically frozen until 2009.”

George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M; University, said Bush appeared to be trying to stay relevant by relying on his discretionary powers -- the ability to order the federal bureaucracy to take action -- instead of the more powerful influence he wields when his public standing is high and his party is in charge.

“Presidents are never lame ducks when it comes to discretionary authority,” Edwards said. “But these [initiatives] are not the same as a substantive diplomatic initiative to bring peace to the Middle East, and it’s not the same as trying to drive bills through Congress.”

Of course, Bush is trying to do some of that as well, in particular with his support for an immigration reform bill now being debated in Congress.

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But that was old news. Last week, for the most part, Bush chose to make moves that won’t require big fights on Capitol Hill.

“Nobody can stop him. Nobody is really going to get in the way,” Edwards said. “But it’s not the same as driving major change.”

maura.reynolds@latimes.com

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Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Doyle McManus contributed to this report.


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