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Bush Insists U.S. Is Stronger Since He Took Office

By Mort Kondracke

In spite of dismal national and international poll ratings, a hostile Congress and a sagging economy, President Bush enters his last year in office expressing total confidence that he's been doing the right things.


He told me in an Oval Office interview that "absolutely, we are stronger" as a nation than when he took office and that, even in areas where he failed to get what he wanted -- as in Social Security and immigration reform -- his ideas eventually will prevail.

He said his biggest disappointment as president was his inability to be a "uniter not a divider" and he agreed that politics is "polarized." On the other hand, he was adamant that he would never compromise on some of the principles -- such as cutting taxes and promoting democracy -- that have made him so polarizing.

"It's one thing to compromise on pieces of legislation to get something done," he said. "It's another to compromise on principle -- which I have refused to do. People say, 'Oh, you must be a uniter by compromising your beliefs.'

"There are certain things on which I will not compromise. I don't see how you can be president if you don't stand strong on your principles. There's too much incoming.

"There's too many complicated decisions, too much flattery, too much criticism, too many polls, too many focus groups. And the president has to say: 'Here is the ground on which I stand.'"

Although even top White House aides acknowledged that Bush's last State of the Union address contained no bold new initiatives, Bush said, "I did call on Congress to do some pretty substantial things, if you think about it," including a doubling of his global HIV/AIDS initiative, the economic stimulus package and a $300 million "Pell Grant for Kids" to save inner-city parochial schools as an alternative to failing public schools.

He didn't say so, but it's worth noting that when Bush has come up with big initiatives -- Social Security and immigration reform, an entitlement commission and a tax deduction to expand health insurance coverage --they've been rejected by Congress. The school voucher proposal is being rejected, too.

White House aides say they think Bush will succeed this year in getting the stimulus package, an extension of the FISA terrorist wiretap program, veterans health reforms and pending free-trade agreements.

Bush told me that when he delivered his State of the Union speech Monday night, "I found the atmosphere in the hall to be very amenable. I didn't feel any tension, like we've had in the past."

He said he thought that was due to bipartisan steps being taken to bolster the economy and "Iraq has improved to the point, it felt like to me, there was a lot of tension out of the air." It may have also been due to Democratic relief that Bush will be gone in less than a year.

I asked him whether he agreed with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) that Washington is "broken" and so polarized that it can't solve big problems facing the country. I agree with them.

But Bush doesn't. "If I were running for president, I would be for change. As a matter of fact, every candidate has got to figure out a way to be for change. I campaigned for change every time I ran, except for twice: in 1998, my re-election for governor, and 2004, my re-election for president," he joked.

"Can Washington function better? Of course, it can," he said. But he disputed that big problems couldn't be solved because of partisanship. "We have reformed education, we have reformed Medicare, we have cut taxes."

And, he said, eventually Social Security will be reformed along with the immigration system -- by an "evolutionary" process, and his way.

As time goes on, he said, younger people accustomed to 401(k) defined contribution programs will demand reform replacing current defined benefits and minorities will want an opportunity to accumulate assets -- all arguing for his private accounts proposal.

"One thing history will be able to say is that we finally had a president who stood up in front of the nation more than one time and said, 'here is a solution for Social Security,'" Bush said. Now he wants Congress to come up with one.

Similarly on immigration, he predicted that "logic will prevail over time, once the emotion gets out of the issue," especially as employers pressure legislators for workers and for tamper-proof residency documents.

When I asked him whether he thought America was a stronger country than when he arrived in office -- in view of a weakened dollar, increased debt, rising oil prices and dependency and international polls showing a steep decline in America's reputation -- he batted the question back.

"We're stronger because our military is stronger ... and becoming more modern. We're stronger because we recognize the threats of the 21st century and are dealing with them.

"We're stronger because we've added jobs. More Americans are working. ... Real wages are up. ... We're still a flexible economy with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. He have more debt, but we've also got more assets. We're stronger because America is in the lead, using its influence."

He utterly dismissed international opinion polls showing declining approval of the United States. "When it comes to, where do you want to live, many people [say], 'I'd like to live in the United States.'"

He said one of the principles he would never compromise on was his conviction that people all over the world deserve democracy. But, when I asked him whether he was compromising in Pakistan, permitting President Pervez Musharraf to rig elections, he denied it.

"I have no evidence that he's going to rig elections. Quite the contrary, he has told me that he wants free elections," Bush said. But he added that "democracies evolve over time, based upon their histories and traditions.

"We can't expect that every nation, all of a sudden, is going to be a flourishing democracy the way we want it to be," he said, and also expressed confidence that Musharraf is doing all he can to combat terrorism.

When I asked him about a New York Times report that Musharraf had rebuffed a direct request from top U.S. intelligence officials to allow CIA operatives to pursue al-Qaida and Taliban targets in Pakistan's tribal area, Bush said, "I wouldn't necessarily believe everything you read there."

The bottom line on Bush is that he seems utterly convinced in the rightness of what he's been doing these seven years. "We must be confident in what we stand for and not feel like we have to subsume our interests, our beliefs, in order to reach a kind of unanimity in the world," he said.

"And that also applies at home. So, people say, 'You can unify.' But I will not unify if I have to compromise my beliefs."

It can't be much more stark and clear than that. The Great Polarizer will not compromise -- and he won't unify, either, unless, like Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, he's vindicated by history.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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