Bush's New Keyword: 'Adjust' ; on Iraq, Torture Policy, and Tax System Overhaul, He Demonstrates More Flexibility

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Under the klieg lights of a prime-time press conference, George W. Bush once famously could not recall any mistakes he had made as president. To his critics, the April 2004 moment cemented the notion that he is unreflective about his policies, an immovable object in the face of facts.

The reality, however, is different - as demonstrated by a wave of developments. Most striking has been his series of speeches on Iraq in the run-up to Thursday's elections there, culminating in Wednesday's fourth and final address. The M-word - mistake - is still not a part of his vocabulary, but the word "adjust" is, and is now sprinkled throughout his speeches.

"We listened, and we adjusted our approach," he said in one example Monday, explaining how the plan for transition to Iraqi self- government was forged.

Throughout Washington there are other signs of course correction: In the 2002 No Child Left Behind education reform, whose requirements for progress have created anxiety in some states and cities, certain types of waivers are now allowed. On the hotly debated question of torture policy, which at press time remained in flux, the Bush administration has backed away from a veto threat over an amendment to restrict techniques used by Americans during interrogations. Social Security reform and an overhaul of the tax system have been set aside for now.

"The administration knows how to respond to political pressure with the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast," says Marshall Wittmann, a former Republican strategist and now a fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "You've seen it on a number of things - No Child Left Behind, prescription drugs, homeland security."

At times, the larger principles remain firm - such as pressing ahead in Iraq, or pushing for improved educational performance - while the details change. In other instances, there is a wholesale course correction. When it became clear that Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court was damaging the president's support among his political base, she was summarily dropped. Ditto Bernard Kerik, when his nomination to run the Department of Homeland Security ran into a buzz saw of multiple ethical allegations.

Some of Bush's former positions even seem hard to believe - such as his opposition to the establishment of a department of homeland security, a 9/11 commission, and a new Medicare entitlement providing prescription drugs for seniors. …