Why Bush seems unable to regain his footing
An unpopular war and recent scandals have worsened the usual presidential second-term blues.
WASHINGTON — On an almost daily basis, it seems, signs are emerging that the well-oiled Bush machine of the early days is anything but that in the final quarter of George W. Bush's presidency.
From the flap over the firings of federal prosecutors to the exposé over conditions in some parts of Walter Reed Medical Center to a rare public disavowal by a former top campaign aide, President Bush is suffering the slings and arrows that often beset second-term presidents. But because of the intractable nature of the increasingly unpopular Iraq war, his chances of political recovery are slimmer than were those of the most recent presidents to serve two full terms, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, analysts say.
In the perjury trial of Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide, I. Lewis Libby, and now in congressional hearings over the US attorneys' dismissals, the inner workings of an aggressively political White House have been laid bare. In the process, the president seems unable to move on a single initiative, particularly in the domestic arena, where cooperation with Congress is essential.
Bush himself found plenty to poke fun at in his recent appearance at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner, uttering the L-word that no second-term president wants to hear. "I have no intention of becoming a lame-duck president – unless, of course, Cheney accidentally shoots me in the leg," he quipped, referring to the vice president's hunting accident last year.
And, perhaps in the vein of truths being said in jest, Bush offered this analysis of the brouhaha over the firings of eight US attorneys: "I have to admit we really blew the way we let those attorneys go. You know you've botched it when people sympathize with lawyers."
Why does the White House appear to be in such disarray?
The easy answer is the Iraq war, which led to the Democratic takeover of Congress in last November's midterm elections, which in turn has opened the floodgates to congressional hearings and an abrupt shift in the political dynamic on all legislative business. The Democrats do not have total control of the Capitol; in the Senate, Republicans can block any bill with a filibuster. But suddenly, Bush cannot get what he wants by fashioning a slim majority based almost exclusively on Republican votes.
Still, particularly in the current showdown over legislation to fund the Iraq war, the Democrats face political risks, too. If a bill is not signed by April 15, the Pentagon says, the troops will start to suffer. If the stalemate drags on much beyond that date, with visible consequences on the ground in Iraq, the Democrats could face blame.
But in the larger scheme, anytime public debate focuses on Iraq, Bush is likely to wind up on the losing side.
"He may have a good day on the Iraq funding bill, if [Nancy] Pelosi and [Harry] Reid overstep or if they misspeak," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, referring to the top Democrats in Congress. "But what I think is producing the president's low poll ratings are facts on the ground in Iraq."
Paul Light, a presidential scholar at New York University, sees the typical arc of an eight-year presidency playing out: The moment the president takes his second oath of office, the seeds of scandal planted in the first term begin to sprout. It happened with Reagan (Iran-contra) and it happened with Clinton (Monica Lewinsky).
"There's a reason we don't have books on second-term presidencies – except on second-term presidential scandals," says Mr. Light.
Light also notes that in the modern political construct, an unpopular second-term president has very little on which to trade, in terms of control over his party or its financial largesse.
"He has no money and a Democratic Congress that's watching every move he makes," says Light. "I would say that people are no longer afraid of him, and moreover, people no longer believe he can help them in any sort of substantive way."
He makes the contrast with an earlier era, when President Johnson – even at the end of his term, a political lameduck stuck in the quagmire of Vietnam – still controlled the Democratic National Committee and its flow of money. That explains, in part, why Vice President Humphrey waited so long to break with Johnson on Vietnam.
In addition, Bush has seen members of his inner circle leave the administration one by one – some under a cloud -- to be replaced by professionals whose loyal- ties may be as much to their own reputations and to the future of the Republican Party than to Bush personally: Bob Gates as Defense secretary, Josh Bolten as White House chief of staff, and Fred Fielding as White House counsel.
Mr. Gates and Mr. Bolten, in particular, did not hesitate to make personnel changes right out of the block. Gates especially has contrasted his tenure with that of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, by firing top Army brass over the Walter Reed scandal, in contrast with the way Mr. Rumsfeld handled the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
For Bush personally, the biggest arrow of late may have come in Sunday's New York Times, which featured a critical interview with a top strategist of Bush's reelection campaign, Matthew Dowd. In the interview, the first public break with Bush by a member of his inner circle, Mr. Dowd spoke of his disappointment with Bush's leadership and his "my way or the highway" approach, which contrasted with his days as Texas governor.
"I think he's become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in," Dowd said.
Such a harsh public assessment by a once-trusted aide would have been unthinkable even a year ago, when the GOP was strategizing for the midterm elections. But now, with his last election as president behind him, and his job approvals stuck in the mid-30s, there is less reason than ever for critics to hold back.