WASHINGTON – Since August, President Bush has welcomed just one foreign leader to the White House — the interim prime minister of Iraq. No other meetings with foreign dignitaries are on the horizon until Bush goes to Chile in late November for a gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders.
It was quite a different story this time last fall. The president played host, in the Oval Office and at the Camp David (search) presidential retreat, to leaders from seven nations while aides put out word of several more mini-summits to come.
Presidential duties have been pared to a minimum as Bush concentrates on his campaign to win re-election for another four years.
"The president is clearly focusing on the election and little else," said Georgetown University presidential scholar Stephen Wayne.
The few weeks leading up to Election Day are not necessarily a representative snapshot of Bush's entire year. Certainly, with only days to go before Nov. 2, no one expects a president seeking re-election to maintain the same official pace of a non-election year. Moreover, Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) isn't exactly winning a best-senator award as he tries to unseat Bush. The Massachusetts senator has participated in just 17 of 211 votes since January.
But with fall typically a busy time at the White House, Bush has set aside many of at least the public functions of his job.
The last couple of months have been largely devoid of policy endeavors, though he has talked about second-term proposals ranging from Social Security (search) to tax simplification. He also has lifted some sanctions on Libya, embraced changes in the intelligence community and signed two tax-cut bills.
During the same period last year, Bush was busy pushing for $87 billion in additional spending for Iraq and Afghanistan, seeking another U.N. resolution on Iraq, pressing for legislative action to prevent the kind of massive blackouts that had hit the East Coast over the summer, and pulling down barriers to government funding of religious charities, among other announcements.
With Bush's campaigning at fever pitch, he is on the road almost full-time. The president has spent just four full days in Washington since August — two of them Sundays.
There have been just over a dozen public, official presidential events since August, including a few bill-signing ceremonies, the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and the opening of the new American Indian museum in Washington.
Bush made four trips to Florida and one to Pennsylvania to offer support to hurricane and flood victims. But those efforts were also widely seen as plays for support in key election states. And the few speeches he has delivered recently that were not in front of campaign-assembled crowds — before the National Association of Home Builders and National Guard Association of the United States, for instance — were heavily laced with campaign talk and criticism of Kerry.
Last fall, Bush held almost double the number of official events, including a visit with wounded soldiers, a prime-time address to the nation on Iraq, several meetings with members of Congress, a Rose Garden speech on Cuba policy and an anti-domestic violence event in the East Room.
The White House insists that Bush's travels have not put his presidency on hold. With technological upgrades on Air Force One and a traveling coterie of senior aides, all the apparatus of the presidency goes wherever Bush does, meaning nothing important slips through the cracks, White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) said.
Bush gets his usual daily security briefings, either in person or by videoconference, and continues to attend regular National Security Council meetings. He stays in regular touch with allies by phone. Instead of calling members of Congress to the Oval Office, he visits with them as he jets into their districts.
He has constant access to White House staff — with the only difference that they may submit a policy briefing on paper rather than present issues in person. Such long-distance back-and-forth just last week resulted in a letter from the White House to Congress stating the administration's positions on intelligence legislation, McClellan said.
Princeton political science professor Fred Greenstein said that, since Bush's management credo is to delegate, his physical absence isn't crucial. And it isn't that different from the rest of Bush's term, which has been remarkable for looking like a re-election campaign well before it actually was one, Greenstein said.
Besides, Wayne said, much of the substantive work of any White House goes on behind the scenes. The public functions that are the main casualties of the campaign, then, are mostly about managing the president's image or building momentum for his proposals — key aspects to governing, but not decisive, he said.