There's a photo of Lyndon Johnson, alone at a conference table. The president's chair is pushed back, and he leans forward, hunched over. His left hand holds his glasses and the arm of a chair next to him for support. His right elbow is on the table, with his forehead resting on his right fist.

Behind him is a bust of his assassinated predecessor. Kennedy's youth and vigor seem to mock the anguish of Johnson, a president who looks worn-down, bereft of hope.

Contrast that image with the current war president, who met with about a dozen journalists in the Oval Office last week. He's seated in front of the fireplace decorated for Christmas with artificial greenery and sugared pine cones. A bust of a resolved Churchill is just behind Bush's left shoulder, another of a reflective Lincoln to his right.

"I'm feeling pretty upbeat about life these days," George W. Bush says as he opens the floor to questions.

And why shouldn't he? Last year at this time, the Democrats had just won majorities in Congress. They and the Iraq Study Group wanted to call it quits in a violence-plagued Iraq. If Bush had followed the Vietnam script, he, too, would have despaired and accepted defeat.

Instead, he ordered the surge. The change in strategy and troop levels changed the war's dynamic.

"I . . . believe in the power of leadership to affect the course of history," Bush tells the journalists.

He's talking about the just-completed Annapolis summit - Mideast envoy and former Prime Minister Tony Blair was leaving the West Wing as the journalists were gathering - but that belief applies to this president and Iraq as well.

Bush will be judged by historians for errors made on his watch, perhaps as harshly as his critics slam him today. But if the positive trends in Iraq continue, he, along with the U.S. military, will also receive - and richly deserve - credit for the turnaround.

Listen to him in person for an hour and 15 minutes, and the president's passion and enthusiasm make it clear that abandoning Iraqis to terrorists was never an option.

"If you think we are in a struggle with extremists and radicals, success in Iraq is essential to the security of this country," he says. "I believe it."

And that ideological struggle with killers requires an alternative ideology: hope.

"The only way radicals can recruit is when they find hopeless people," he says. "That's why, for example, an HIV/AIDS initiative is important. That's why a malaria initiative is important. And that's why confronting tyranny is important, because tyrannies are the most likely form of government to create hopelessness."

In Iraq, the central front in the campaign for hope, Bush is confident of success. "Security begets better economics; both beget better politics," he says.

No, the central government hasn't followed the benchmark prescription for success drafted by U.S. politicians. But there is political movement. Local and regional Sunni leaders have reached out to Americans to fight al-Qaeda. Sunnis and Shias are attempting reconciliation locally. In turn, they are demanding more from Baghdad.

Those demands, Bush says, have produced "significant revenue-sharing from the central government to the provinces."

Oil income is being shared - most of the country's revenue comes from oil - even without a national revenue-sharing law.

Sharing the wealth is crucial to a democratic Iraq, Bush says. "It will be a part of the healing process that needs to happen," he says.

Local and national leaders won't always agree on spending and priorities, but that's life in a democracy.

"It's a constant issue, just like here," Bush says. "And it will constantly evolve."

The next step, Bush says, is a long-term strategic relationship to help "deal with the mindset of people who wonder whether or not there is a security commitment by the United States."

And by next year?

"My hope is that we put [Iraq] in a position where the momentum, the freedom momentum, is strong and powerful . . . so that the decisions are easier to make for the next president."

Bush stands, as do the guests. The last-minute questions begin. He lists the historical nonfiction he's recently read, along with the novel

A Confederacy of Dunces

, a title that must make detractors smile and press aides wince.

An insecure president worried about criticism might not have mentioned it. But this is a confident, upbeat man who describes his White House years as a "joyous experience." He's secure in his principles, grounded by faith and family, and full of hope for his country and its future.

Contact Kevin Ferris at kf@phillynews.com or 215-854-5305

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