Bush must address vulnerabilities on multiple fronts
WASHINGTON – Ronald Reagan was “the Teflon president.” They called Bill Clinton the “comeback kid.” Now President Bush, the latest in a line of second-term presidents to suffer a painful fall from grace, faces a consequential test of his ability to bounce back from crisis. For Bush, who has spent his career clinging stubbornly to consistency, the prospect of change could be distasteful – or worse, impossible. But with his popularity at rock-bottom, his White House stained by scandal, his agenda stalled, and his party divided in the wake of a failed Supreme Court nomination, Bush has little choice but to attempt a turnaround. Bush is beginning an intense effort to recover his second-term clout by jump-starting his agenda, including moving quickly to name a conservative to the Supreme Court and pressing for aggressive spending and tax cuts. In the coming weeks, Bush might tap some new advisers for key White House posts to bring a fresh perspective to a team exhausted and demoralized by his recent string of troubles, although he’s unlikely to undertake a wholesale purge of his team, said analysts and people close to the administration. Strategists said Bush is right to stick to the basics that have marked his past success: Push a clear agenda, make the case for it in public, and tout your successes. “Basic blocking and tackling,” said Ken Khachigian, former speechwriter to Reagan and Richard M. Nixon. Bush began that process on Friday, sending Congress a proposal to take back $2.3 billion in spending for federal projects, and is expected to continue this week with the naming of a new Supreme Court choice to erase sour memories of his failed nominee, Harriet E. Miers. “Presidents can turn things around, and quite dramatically,” Khachigian said. “Bush needs to list his top 10 priorities, and he needs to (say) that the war in Iraq is priorities one through five. . . . He needs to constantly and explicitly and articulately make sure the country understands the stakes in Iraq.” A staff shake-up would be the wrong move for Bush, Republican operatives said. “This has not been a president who has made wholesale changes throughout his public life,” said former Republican Rep. Bill Paxon of New York. “He has worked with a team through good times and bad, and at the end of the day, that’s been something that’s served him well, and I think it will continue to serve him well.” Besides, Khachigian said, a White House purge “would show that they’re sort of panicky. They need to show the opposite. They need to show self-confidence and the ability to move forward.” But there has been wide speculation that Bush might seek to replace his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., and some people close to the White House said the president would benefit from new voices on a team that has been criticized for being too insular. The withdrawal of Miers’ nomination for the Supreme Court, after a backlash among conservatives taken off-guard by her selection, was seen by many observers as evidence that Bush and his team had become too myopic to spot an obvious misstep before committing it. Bush “needs to restore some of his moral authority, and I worry that he and the people around him are in denial, that they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong,” David Gergen, a veteran of Republican administrations, told CNN’s Larry King on Friday. Instead of going immediately on the offensive with a fight over the court, Bush should take a page from Reagan and take responsibility for his mistakes, Gergen said. Bush should abandon his impulse to turn inward if he wants to weather the crisis, said Leon E. Panetta, who served as Clinton’s chief of staff: “If they start just hunkering down, I think that’s going to be very bad. The president puts a big emphasis on loyalty, but this isn’t about loyalty.” The sheer weight of the burden Bush is shouldering could make it difficult for him to find fresh momentum in policy victories and personnel changes. The indictment last week of key White House player I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide, was only the latest in a drumbeat of bad news for Bush. What’s more worrisome for the president – just nine months after he crowed about his abundance of political capital, and his intention to spend it – are a host of other factors sapping his strength, chief among them the war in Iraq and rising fuel prices. Past presidents including Clinton and Reagan have weathered scandal and sagging popularity that seemed insurmountable, then regained their footing in time to claim an appealing legacy. Bush might face a steeper climb, as Libby’s indictment came fast on the heels of other damaging developments for Bush that provoked doubts about his policies, including the grim milestone of the 2,000th U.S. combat death in Iraq, a succession of damaging hurricanes that caught the government shockingly unprepared, and a run-up in fuel prices. Bush’s predecessors suffered from “kind of single problems that – while obviously they were serious – there still were a lot of things for both presidents, Reagan and Clinton, that were going well,” Panetta said. “The difference here is that this isn’t just the scandal that is impacting on the White House. . . . There are a whole series of issues that are creating real problems for the White House, and it makes it that much tougher (to handle),” he added. At the top of Bush’s list of woes sits Iraq, where even good news – such as overwhelming approval of a new constitution earlier this month – has been overshadowed by a violent insurgency that shows no signs of subsiding. Bush is working to bolster public support for the war in public comments, as national polls show approval of his handling of Iraq at its lowest point. Unless elections scheduled for December go well and violence wanes in Iraq, allowing Bush to withdraw at least some U.S. troops by next spring, the war will continue to weigh down his popularity, and could hurt his party’s chances in the 2006 elections. “Iraq is the underpinning of the president’s fortunes. It will be easier to improve the president’s fortunes if people believe there’s some demonstrable progress in Iraq,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “If that stuff gets better, the president’s numbers will go up.” Some activists hope that Bush will go back to his roots as he tries to reverse his political fortunes, including by choosing a strict conservative with clear credentials for the Supreme Court. “At this stage in his presidency, Bush needs a fight (to rally his base),” said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. The Miers nomination, he added, was “a lost opportunity to get peoples’ blood boiling.” By going on the offensive with deep spending cuts and a strict policy against illegal immigration, other Republicans said, Bush can reclaim lost momentum for himself and his party. But aggressive moves to satisfy his base could trigger a battle in Congress and threaten any progress on those priorities.