Wednesday, January 24, 2007

But What’s the State of Bush’s Presidency?

“Dire.” That’s the term offered by Salon political columnist Walter Shapiro--the same word that Lieutenant General David Petraeus used yesterday to describe the military situation in Iraq. Assessing Bush’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech last night, Shapiro writes:
Ever since Woodrow Wilson created the modern tradition of oral State of the Union addresses, by appearing before Congress in 1913, few presidents (maybe only Herbert Hoover in 1932 and Richard Nixon in 1974) have embarked on this rhetorical task with such dismal prospects for political salvation. It would take both victory in Iraq and a free Prius for every family to rescue a president whose approval ratings--28 percent in the latest CBS News poll--have sunk lower than the number of voters who want to send more troops to Iraq (29 percent in the same survey).

As bad as things are for Bush right now, at least he can claim, as Lyndon Johnson did at the height of Vietnam, “I’m the only president you’ve got.” At the State of the Union a year from now--just days after the 2008 Iowa caucuses--the Republican Party will be well on its way to nominating a new presidential candidate, and Bush will truly be a portrait of irrelevancy. ...

What we are witnessing is the downside of the stability built into the American political system--the inability of a four-year presidential administration to fall of its own weight. If this were a parliamentary system, all it would take would be a no-confidence vote in Congress to bring on a new presidential election. And probably even a significant minority of Republicans would support such a heave-ho motion. But instead--keeping in mind that incompetence is not an impeachable offense--we are saddled with Bush and Dick Cheney for another two years.

Which raises the grave issue of whether a president--armed with his formidable constitutional powers--can function without the support of Congress, two-thirds of the voters and a growing number of senior members (Virginia Sen. John Warner is a prime example) of his own party.

Bush gambled the last vestiges of the prestige of his position on his
prime-time address on Iraq on Jan. 10--and, as a result of that bum bet, the croupier took all the president’s chips off the board. Even popular presidents (Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan) risked wearing out their welcome if they preempted evening television time twice in a single month. So it was surprising that Bush returned to the well-trod turf of Iraq and terrorism for almost half the State of the Union address, especially with all the White House pre-speech emphasis on the president's reinvigorated domestic agenda. It was almost as if Bush wanted a do-over on his Iraq speech, somehow believing that if he mouthed the familiar platitudes one more time (“This war is more than a clash of arms--it is a decisive ideological struggle and the security of our nation hangs in the balance”), he could miraculously turn the tide of public opinion. ...

Getting caught up in these policy details risks treating Bush like a normal president, a leader whose words have weight on Capitol Hill. But there is nothing normal about a second-term president whose popularity is slipping dangerously close to Barry Bonds levels. Bush is more than a lame duck; he is akin to an aquatic bird carried around on a stretcher. Maybe the most memorable aspect of the 2007 State of the Union address is simply that Bush survived it.
The New York Times sounds equally cynical about the prez’s prospects for his final two years in the White House, noting that his economic misjudgments, history of partisanship, failed policies, and unwillingness to admit his mistakes all limit his ability to be an effective leader:
The White House spin ahead of George W. Bush’s seventh State of the Union address was that the president would make a bipartisan call to revive his domestic agenda with “bold and innovative concepts.” The problem with that was obvious last night--in six years, Mr. Bush has shown no interest in bipartisanship, and his domestic agenda was set years ago, with huge tax cuts for wealthy Americans and crippling debt for the country.

Combined with the mounting cost of the war in Iraq, that makes boldness and innovation impossible unless Mr. Bush truly changes course. And he gave no hint of that last night. Instead, he offered up a tepid menu of ideas that would change little: a health insurance notion that would make only a tiny dent in a huge problem. More promises about cutting oil consumption with barely a word about global warming. And the same lip service about immigration reform on which he has failed to deliver.

At times, Mr. Bush sounded almost as if he’d gotten the message of the 2006 elections. “Our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on--as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done,” he said.

But we’ve heard that from Mr. Bush before. In early 2001, he promised to bring Americans together and instead embarked on his irresponsible tax cuts, a divisive right-wing social agenda and a neo-conservative foreign policy that tore up international treaties and alienated even America’s closest allies. In the wake of 9/11, Mr. Bush had a second chance to rally the nation--and the world--only to squander it on a pointless, catastrophic war in Iraq. Mr. Bush promised bipartisanship after his re-election in 2004, and
again after Hurricane Katrina. Always, he failed to deliver. He did not even mention New Orleans last night.

When Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, Mr. Bush’s only real interest was in making their majority permanent; consultation meant telling the Democrats what he had decided. ...

Now that the Democrats have taken Congress, Mr. Bush is acting as if he’d had the door to compromise open all along and the Democrats had refused to walk through it. ...

Mr. Bush almost certainly didn’t intend it, but his speech did reinforce one vital political fact--that it’s not just up to him anymore. There was a big change last night: the audience. Instead of solid Republican majorities marching in lock step with the White House, Congress is controlled by Democrats. It will be their task to give leadership to a nation that desperately wants change and expects its leaders to work together to deliver it. The Democrats’ challenge will be to form real coalitions with willing Republicans. If they do, Mr. Bush may even be forced, finally, to compromise.
In another Salon piece, written in anticipation of Bush’s SOTU address, former presidential adviser and journalist Sidney Blumenthal said that even in the face of historic Republican losses in Congress, and despite polls showing that Americans believe the nation is heading in the wrong direction and want the Democrats to take control, the prez, like some petulant child, still insists on having his own way:
Bush’s failure is tainting his party even more than Nixon tarred the Republicans. The Democratic victories in 1974 were in retrospect a momentary swing of the pendulum in reaction to Watergate, but not the basis of a lasting realignment. The Republican era, which surfaced first in 1966, was temporarily set back, but not reversed. Nixon, after all, had won 49 states in 1972. After Jimmy Carter’s interregnum, Ronald Reagan resumed where Nixon had left off, with a conservative vengeance.

Iraq may bear similarities to Vietnam as a march of folly. But George W. Bush is no Lyndon Johnson, who was fully conscious and anguished at the disaster unfolding. Unlike Johnson, who listened to the counsel of his secretary of defense, Clark Clifford, who urged him to sue for peace, Bush has disdained Clifford’s latter-day counterpart, former Secretary of State
James A. Baker.

Oblivious to realities in Iraq, Bush is also increasingly oblivious to political realities at home. Herbert Hoover, acclaimed as the most talented and skillful man of his time, was incapable of rising above his narrow perspectives in the face of the Depression, and his stubborn limitations marked his party for two generations. Bush views his State of the Union speech as another occasion for declaring what he will do regardless of what anyone thinks (with Cheney’s approval). His intention is not to report on the state of the Union. It is to express his state of indifference to the Union.
Finally, although Bush’s seventh State of the Union speech failed to stir more than fiercely partisan, right-wing hearts, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter writes that the Democratic response, delivered by the new junior U.S. senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, demonstrated a revival of America’s political opposition:
Something unprecedented happened tonight, beyond the doorkeeper announcing, “Madame Speaker.” For the first time ever, the response to the State of the Union Message overshadowed the president’s big speech. Virginia Sen. James Webb, in office only three weeks, managed to convey a muscular liberalism--with personal touches--that left President Bush’s ordinary address in the dust. In the past, the Democratic response has been anemic--remember Washington Gov. Gary Locke? This time it pointed the way to a revival for national Democrats.

Webb is seen as a moderate or even conservative Democrat, but this was a populist speech that quoted Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party and champion of the common man. The speech represented a return to the tough-minded liberalism of Scoop Jackson and Hubert Humphrey, but by quoting Republicans Teddy Roosevelt (on “improper corporate influence”) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (on ending the Korean War), he reinforced the argument that President Bush had taken the GOP away from its roots. ...

[A]t a minimum, Jim Webb offered a timely reminder that great political parties can recover if they strike the right tone.
It’s too late to prevent the damage Bush has done to America’s economy, its standing in the world, and public faith in the presidency. But with a Democratic majority in Congress, voters unimpressed--finally--with Bush’s dick-swinging interpretation of “leadership,” and the GOP on the ropes over its complicity in escalating an Iraq conflict that has emboldened terrorists and increased their numbers, rather than crushing them, it may not be too late to begin moving the nation back onto a path of common sense, political compromise, and secular policymaking that advances larger goals than anti-gay marriage amendments and tax cuts for the wealthiest among us. Bush showed his irrelevancy last evening; it is time, as Webb suggested, for others to show us the way forward.

SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT: At the end of a piece pointing out how Bush, in his speech last evening, presented a “misleading and often flawed description of ‘the enemy,’ that the United States faces overseas,” Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler makes clear that the prez also plays fast and loose with evidence of his domestic “successes”:
On domestic policy, Bush at one point said that “the recovery” has added more than 7.2 million jobs since August 2003. But the net number of jobs created since Bush became president in January 2001, is much lower--just 3.6 million. The Bush administration’s performance is fairly mediocre for the sixth year of a presidency, according to historical statistics maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 18 million jobs were added by the sixth year of Bill Clinton’s presidency--and nearly 10 million were added at this point in Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Bush claimed credit for cutting the budget deficit ahead of schedule and proposed to eliminate it over the next five years. He did not mention that he inherited a huge budget surplus--$236 billion in 2000--compared with a $296 billion deficit in the 2006 fiscal year, largely as a result of Bush's tax cuts and spending increases. Bush claimed that the No Child Left Behind Act has helped students to “perform better at reading and math, and minority students are closing the achievement gap.” But states made stronger average annual gains in reading during the decade before the law took effect, education researchers have found, and half a dozen recent studies have shown little progress in narrowing the test-score gap between minority and white students.
You can read all of Kessler’s piece here.

READ MORE:State of Disunion: Republicans Beat Up on Bush After Speech,” by David Baram (ABC News); “Bush’s Feeble State of the Union Speech,” by John Dickerson (Slate); “The State of the President: Beleaguered,” by Dan Balz (The Washington Post); “Do You Have to Have Balls to Have Balls?” by Joan Walsh (Salon).

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