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The Oval Office optimist
Media General News Service


January 28, 2006

WASHINGTON - Only a year ago, a triumphant President Bush was flush with political capital and big plans to overhaul Social Security. That was then.

Now, he's trying to remind people why they voted for him.

National security was the issue in the last election, and it's the issue now.

"I understand we're at war with an enemy who wants to hit us again," the president declared at a news conference last week. "I take my responsibility to protect the American people very seriously."

Warming up for Tuesday's State of the Union address, the wartime president also turned on the charm. He went to the Midwest to reconnect with ordinary Americans.

At Kansas State University, Bush was relaxed, self-deprecating and funny as he opened the drapes on life in the Oval Office.

He appreciates his wife's advice - "She tells me when I'm out of line" - but he hinted she offers it too frequently. His Scottish terrier Barney - "my man" - is the son he never had, he said.

The zigzag between commander in chief and Texas George has worked for Bush in the past, and it may again He and his aides believe the Democrats' criticism of his "imperial" approval of warrantless wiretapping is a winning issue - for Republicans. The president made sure to project an image not of royalty but of a regular guy doing all he can to protect the nation.

Bush has decided not to push his luck trying to get any major initiatives through Congress this year. Congressional Republicans have enough trouble running for re-election during a lobbying scandal. He's looking at voter-friendly proposals like tax breaks to help people pay for health care.

He's also poised to morph into a fiscal conservative who wants to curb spending. While this president has never vetoed a spending bill, he said he would if Congress continues to overspend. It's about votes.

The regular guy says one of the "really neat" things about being president is watching his buddies from Texas react to visiting the White House.

"And most of them, after they get over the initial shock of seeing the White House, they then come to the shock of wondering how in the heck I got there."

And when his buddies ask what it's really like to be president, he tells them, "I make a lot of decisions."

He recalled the first decision he had to make.

"I wasn't even sworn in yet and a fellow called me on the phone and he said, 'What color of rug do you want to have in the Oval Office?'

"I said, 'You've got to be kidding me, man.' "

No joke. Presidents design their own rugs.

"So I called. I delegated. That's one of the things you do as a decision-maker," he said. He called Laura.

"What color do you want?" she asked. "I said, 'Make it say this: Optimistic person comes here to work every single day.' "

When Bush walks into the Oval Office to begin a day of making decisions, he sees a muted cream, gold and blue rug with the sun's rays radiating from the presidential seal.

Bush explained how he manages to stay upbeat. He credits faith, family, friends and exercise. Especially exercise.

"I found that part of keeping a positive outlook is, kind of, burn off that excess energy," he said in Kansas. He works out five or six days a week.

"If it's really important, if you feel that's important for your life," you find the time, he said. "I have trouble with people saying, 'I'm so busy I can't exercise.' "

Bush said he isn't running much these days. His knees "are like tires and they're bald. I'm a mountain bike guy, and it's a fantastic experience."

He urged the students to keep their priorities straight.

"By having good priorities in your life, it helps you keep perspective on your life. And perspective is very important as you assume responsibility."

Bush told reporters he looks forward to campaigning for Republicans on a theme of "peace and prosperity."

It's hard to see how even the sunniest personality can talk about "peace and prosperity" when the nation is at war and the economic clouds grow darker by the day.


Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief of Media General News Service.
E-mail mmercer(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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