Bush's New Year's resolution: Pretend to care

The White House adopts a new strategy to increase Bush's standing with the public. Its policies will stay the same.

Published December 29, 2005 4:40PM (EST)

Cheer up, America! In the New Year, you're getting a new president!

Well, OK -- not really a new president. When you tumble out of bed Sunday morning, George W. Bush, he of small words and big smirk, will still be the official inhabitant of that big white house on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But even if he's the same old guy, the president and his administration will be wholly improved, at least according to a handful of opportunistic aides who have the ear of the Washington Post. As the paper reports this morning, in the new year, Americans should look for the Bush Administration to be honest, trustworthy, pragmatic, and, most of all, interested in what its critics have to say. Talk about an ambitious resolution!

Now, ordinarily, we don't like to quash such goals; whether your intention is to quit smoking, get that waist into shape, or to convince an increasingly disaffected and demoralized public that you aren't as ignorant and unconcerned about the nation's problems as you have for so long appeared, we like to encourage great expectations around this time of year. Still, something about the Post's story seems a bit contrived, and we wouldn't hold our breath for much new out of the White House in 2006.

For one thing, as AmericaBlog points out, the Post report reeks of intra-White House politics, and is therefore to be taken with a grain of salt. The article's main theme is a bit of White House gossip: According to the paper, sometime in the last few months, as the president's approval ratings began to freefall, his most senior aides -- especially Karl Rove -- argued that he should mount a full-scale scorched-earth offensive against his critics. But younger aides, such as counselor Dan Bartlett and communications director Nicolle Wallace, advised that Bush take a new, humbler approach. As the Post puts it: "The same-old Bush was not enough, they said; he needed to be more detailed about his strategy in Iraq and, most of all, more open in admitting mistakes -- something that does not come easily to Bush."

It's obvious that these younger aides constitute the main source for the Post's report; their strategy is described as a winning one. The paper credits Bush's gain in the Washington Post's most recent poll -- Bush's approval rating there was at 47 percent -- to the series of recent speeches in which, for the first time, he acknowledged difficulties in Iraq. This approach -- to signal that you understand what your critics are saying --- is a template for how the president will act in the new year, the paper says.

What the paper does not say, however, is that its own poll is something of an outlier; most other surveys, while showing something of a recent bump for Bush, still paint of a picture of a deeply, deeply unpopular president. (For more on this, see illuminating discussions at Mystery Pollster and Political Arithmetik.)

We've got a guess for why the public has not wholeheartedly embraced the new Bush: because Americans realize that once again, the White House is only tinkering with the way it presents its policies, not with the actual policies themselves. They've changed the packaging, slapped on a spiffy new label -- "Now 50 percent humbler!" -- but the product's still stale and unappetizing, and the price is far too high.

We're not just making this up; one Bush aide all but admits to the Post that Bush's new strategy is mostly just rhetorical. Likening the national debate on what to do in Iraq to "fighting with a spouse," the aide says that Bush's new plan is to "give voice to their concern. That doesn't necessarily solve the division and the difference, but it drains the disagreement of some of its animosity if you feel you've been heard."

There you have it, then. In the new year, the president would like to make you feel like you're being heard. But don't assume he's actually listening. He's not.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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