WASHINGTON – White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten graciously offered his desk chair to President Clinton's chief of staff Leon Panetta when he was touring the West Wing with interns a few days after the election.
Seeing Panetta behind Bolten's desk, Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, did a double take.
"God, I knew we lost the election — I didn't think you were taking over the White House," Panetta recalls Rove saying.
Since the election, Bush is having to share the seat of power with the Democrats. And Bolten has become his bridge to Capitol Hill.
"The election was not a happy event around here, obviously," Bolten said, sitting on a couch in his spacious corner office where light streams in through tall windows. "Everybody's disappointed, but I haven't seen a single discouraged person."
To keep the staff focused, Bolten handed out about a dozen countdown clocks that show the number of days, hours, minutes and seconds left in Bush's presidency. The clock read 1,000 days in April when Bolten started his job, saying it was time for the White House to "get our mojo back."
Six months later, the pendulum has swung the Democrats' way, Iraq is chaotic and the president's job approval rating is stuck in the 30s. There now are fewer than 800 days left — not a long time to push the Bush agenda, especially when the president's power is slipping away like sands through an hourglass.
Democrats claim their Election Day victory meant the president would limp through his final two years in office.
"I don't believe any of that," Bolten says.
Then, in his soft, direct style, Bolten suggests a silver lining to the GOP defeat: In the majority, Democrats will have more of a burden to show progress, especially heading into the race for the White House in 2008. The Democrats' 51-49 majority in the Senate is slim. Republicans still control the White House. And 800 days is nearly as long as Gerald Ford's presidency.
"You'll see us accommodating to the new environment and working more closely with Democrats than we have in the past," said Bolten, a 52-year-old self-described "policy geek" who has been spending time on Capitol Hill helping draft the GOP's new game plan.
"But I do not see the president compromising on principles. There may be people in the conservative base who fear that he is going to turn on his principles, but I think they will see fairly readily that he won't."
Bolten can tap connections he made on Capitol Hill when he was White House budget director to smooth relations with lawmakers who feel they've been shunned.
"Clearly, he's got to become the lynchpin in terms of building the relationship with the Hill," said Panetta, who was hired to reorganize the Clinton White House in the mid-1990s. "Most of the others at the White House have a pretty hit-and-miss kind of relationship with the Hill. We can't forget that they've been through six years of trench warfare. There's a lot of distrust out there."
Rove — a man Bolten calls brilliant on policy, strategy and politics — is not the man for building bipartisan bridges, said Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University.
"I think Rove has lost his credibility with Republican members of Congress so if they're going to indicate that they want to deal with Congress, it's got to be through Bolten," Wayne said. "He's become the prime negotiator."
Bolten, whose father was a CIA officer and whose mother was a world history professor, is a shy, conservative bureaucrat, with a playful side.
He likes to bowl, ride motorcycles and occasionally plays bass guitar in a rock band. He has a serious girlfriend he's known since his teens, yet Bush teases him about being a bachelor in his 50s.
Bolten will use his quick wit to bring try to bring levity to acrid relations the White House has had with some lawmakers.
After a campaign event in Nebraska, Bolten walked around Air Force One with a foam rubber yellow ear of corn resting horizontally on his head. "I say dignity above all is what campaigns are about," he deadpanned.
"He's kind of Bob Newhart," White House press secretary Tony Snow says. "He's got that sort of very flat delivery. If something strikes him as funny, he'll insert it very quickly. It's one of those deals where after a two-second lag, you get it."
Like his boss, Bolten reveals little about the five or six hours a day he spends with the president.
He won't say whether he advised the president to wait until after the election to remove Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld — a move that rankled Republicans who thought an earlier change at the Pentagon might have helped them hold the Senate.
Yet Bolten's fingerprints are all over Bush's decision to replace Rumsfeld with former CIA director Robert Gates, the president of Texas A&M University.
Bush met Gates the Sunday before Election Day at his Texas ranch. It was Bolten, along with deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, who jumped into an SUV early that morning and drove to a grocery store parking lot in nearby McGregor, Texas, to pick up Gates for the meeting that sealed the deal.
After the election, Bush vowed to seek common ground with Democrats. But then he asked the Senate again to confirm John Bolton, the president's polarizing pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and he renominated six judges, four of them vehemently opposed by Democrats. Sen. Patrick Leahy, the incoming Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, accused the White House of "taking the bait of right-wing partisan groups."
Bolten predicts Democrats and Republicans can work together on immigration, energy and education policy, but said Bush probably will find more reasons to get out his veto pen, which he's used only once. With Democrats in charge, Social Security and other entitlement issues will be a much greater challenge, he said.
"I think some of our toughest issues are going to be on spending," he said. "I would be surprised to see the president compromising principle on taxation. He's still going to be very firm for sustaining a low tax environment."