WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Punched in the gut by voters, President George W. Bush acknowledged on Wednesday Democrats gave his Republicans a “thumping” and said he would try to make the most of the new political landscape in his last two years.
At a White House East Room news conference, Bush seemed in remarkably good humor for a leader whose party had just lost control of at least half of the U.S. Congress and possibly the other half as well in Tuesday’s elections.
“Look, this is a close election. If you look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping,” he said.
He quickly announced the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose removal had long been demanded by Democrats, while insisting the decision for him to leave had been made before Election Day.
That was at odds with comments Bush made to Reuters and other news agencies last week in the Oval Office, when he said he would like for Rumsfeld to stay on for the rest of his presidency.
Bush admitted intentionally misleading reporters when he said Rumsfeld was staying on.
“I didn’t want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign,” Bush said.
He also said he responded that way because he had not had a chance to meet with Robert Gates about replacing Rumsfeld, “and I hadn’t had my final conversation with Don Rumsfeld yet at that point.”
Bush, who as Texas governor from 1995 to 2000 worked cooperatively with conservative Democrats, emphasized his desire for bipartisanship on issues that will consume the rest of his presidency: Iraq, changes to the Social Security pension system and immigration reform.
He abruptly shifted from his hot campaign rhetoric.
Democrats were no longer soft on terrorism, but rather, they “care about the security of the country, like I do,” and “Democrats are going to support our troops just like Republicans will.”
“The message yesterday was clear: The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences, conduct ourselves in an ethical manner, and work together to address the challenges facing our nation,” Bush said.
Bush had spent days on the campaign trail saying California Rep. Nancy Pelosi loves taxes and thinks she is going to be speaker of the House of Representatives “but she’s not.”
She had variously described Bush as incompetent and dangerous.
But Bush phoned her on Wednesday morning to offer his congratulations on her pending ascension as head of the House.
After days of mocking her for already “measuring the drapes” of her prospective new office on Capitol Hill before Election Day, he joked he told her he had some Republican interior decorators she might want to try for the job.
“You know, look, people say unfortunate things at times. But if you hold grudges in this line of work, you’re never going to get anything done. And my intention is to get some things done, and soon,” he said.
Pelosi was invited to the White House for lunch on Thursday to talk about the way forward. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, in line to become majority leader if Democrats win control of the Senate, will be over for talks over coffee on Friday.
Sitting off to the side in the East Room was Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, who had winning election strategies in 2000, 2002 and 2004 but whose efforts to turn out conservative voters fell short against the tide this year.
Bush could not resist a good-natured dig at Rove when asked who was ahead in his competition with Rove on who could read the most books.
“I’m losing. I obviously was working harder in the campaign than he was,” he said to gales of laughter.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria