CARL LEUBSDORF Bush shows his warm, confident side

Journalists and the public are seeing a lot of the real George W. Bush these days, the genial, relaxed fellow whom handlers often kept under wraps in his first term.
He seems a lot more like the friendly guy who was so popular as governor of Texas. But as the president nears the end of his second term's first 100 days, there's little sign yet that a more open demeanor is paying political dividends.
Polls show Bush's standing with the public is lower than four years ago. The prospects for his major initiatives are dimmer, a reflection both of their difficulty and a sign that substance trumps atmospherics, even in today's highly personalized political world.
In any case, it's been evident since last November's election that Bush is, if not liberated, far more comfortable in confronting controversy and the press.
He's had regular monthly news conferences, displaying the increased deftness that comes with practice. The contrast between the stiff, uncertain first-term president and the relaxed, confident second-term version was on vivid display when Bush appeared recently before the nation's news editors.
Four years ago, when he spoke to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he stayed for just 23 minutes and answered only five questions, not counting his abrupt brush-off of one probing his long-term intentions toward China.
Last week, he spoke for 43 minutes and answered 14 questions, sidestepping the ones about issues of government secrecy but giving candid responses on some controversial areas and deflecting others with pointed humor.
Asked whether he agreed with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's effort to blame his ethical woes on bias by "the liberal news media," Bush interrupted the questioner. "Of course not," he said. But he praised DeLay as "a very effective leader."
And when he was asked whether he thought journalists Judith Miller and Matt Cooper were wrong in withholding news sources, Bush replied, "Why don't we let the courts decide that? You think I'm going there? You're crazy."
What remains unclear is whether his kinder and gentler demeanor will extend to his dealings on substance with Congress.
The White House has signaled some willingness to compromise on Social Security. But it is maintaining a hard line on other divisive issues, such as the confirmation of conservative federal judges.
Beyond the atmospherics, however, Bush is encountering second-term difficulties for the same reason other presidents have gone awry: claiming a mandate for more than the voters intended.
That's clear in the contrast in the public attitudes toward his first- and second-term agendas.
At this point four years ago, Bush was on his way to winning approval of tax cuts and had formed an alliance with Sen. Edward Kennedy that led to his No Child Left Behind education law.
He pushed both proposals in his 2000 campaign, and both were popular politically.
Private accounts
Neither is the case with his top second-term goal, his plan to revamp the Social Security system and permit younger workers to divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts.
He referred to it in only general terms during 2004, and polls show considerable opposition.
As a result, its chances look dubious. Similarly, prospects are questionable for his goal of simplifying the tax system, though that battle won't unfold until his bipartisan commission presents its report later this year.
In both cases, while polls show strong concerns about the current systems, they also show Bush has failed so far to make a convincing case that he would solve them.
There's another reason Bush is having difficulty the second time around: the domination of domestic issues. After all, his first-term political success stemmed more from foreign policy than from domestic issues.
Indeed, it's easy to forget that, even while he was pushing popular domestic proposals, his public standing was dropping throughout 2001. His strong response to the 9-11 attacks established his leadership credentials to an extent that has sustained him politically ever since.
That's been true even when things were not going well in Iraq. Despite doubts about the war, Americans support his underlying goals of removing Saddam Hussein and spurring democracy.
But an improving situation in Iraq inevitably means more focus on domestic issues. And results there are likely to count a lot more than atmospherics.
X Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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