In this Economic Crisis, President Bush Finds Himself Short of Political Capital

"He's a lame duck with empty pockets," says one historian.

By + More

The economic crisis underscores a basic truth of American democracy: The country does best when it has a strong president to take charge during an emergency. Unfortunately, that's not the description that comes to mind when assessing George W. Bush's handling of the ongoing unpleasantness.

It's not that Bush hasn't been trying. His aides point out that he worked hard to persuade recalcitrant legislators to support his $700 billion "rescue" plan and other measures to improve the economy. It's just that his influence has reached rock bottom. Even the president's last-minute arguments to the country and to Congress—including an early-morning plea on the day of the first bailout vote in the House September 29—failed to persuade a majority of fellow Republicans to back his own bill. More than two thirds of the House Republicans and about a third of the Democrats voted against the initial measure. It was the worst rebuff of Bush's presidency.

For the remainder of this term, it's clear that any long-term compromises will depend on Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, with the White House in a secondary position. Bush is not only a lame duck, with about three months remaining in office; he has apparently exhausted most of his credibility. His job-approval rating has dropped to its lowest level, according to Gallup, with only 27 percent of Americans giving him a favorable rating.

Why should Americans care? Because the country always benefits from having a strong president during a crisis. In contrast, Bush has shown considerable weakness in recent weeks, at first seeming reluctant to take the public lead on the Wall Street bailout/rescue plan. After the problem festered, he gave a prime-time address, but even his allies say that fell short of the leadership role required by the gravity of the situation. They would have preferred that he speak to a joint session of Congress. Yet, other Republican strategists say Bush wouldn't have done his cause much good with such a high-profile move because he has become so unpopular. All this suggests how far the president has fallen since he declared war on terrorism and sent U.S. forces into Iraq and Afghanistan during his first term.

Historian Robert Dallek sees some parallels to the failure of President Herbert Hoover to adequately address the economic meltdown of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Dallek points out that Hoover "couldn't let go of his ideology"—notably his belief that the markets would eventually correct themselves. That didn't happen, and Hoover became a figure of ridicule for generations. "In a crisis, you do need a strong and effective president," Dallek says. "And a president has to be very careful how he uses his political influence. If he squanders or loses it, it's injurious to the country, and that's where we are."

Today, Dallek adds, "we have a power vacuum. President Bush is not just a lame duck. He's lost his standing and his credibility. People don't trust what he says. He's cried wolf too many times," such as in the run-up to the Iraq war when he argued that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. They were never found.

Princeton historian Julian Zelizer agrees. "The system needs a strong president at a time of crisis," he says, because no other institution can bring people together like the chief executive. "When you have tough times, that's when presidential leadership counts for a lot, and that's what we don't have now," Zelizer adds. The historian points out that Ronald Reagan retained a large amount of public support until the end of his presidency. And he was able to win congressional support for important late-term legislation, including a treaty limiting intermediate-range nuclear weapons, which was a tough sell on Capitol Hill.

In contrast, Bush has little political capital left. "He's a lame duck with empty pockets," Zelizer says, adding that whatever compromises Congress might enact to rescue the financial system, they will have to be forged by skillful legislators, not by Bush. Just as important, the financial crisis appears so severe and the "rescue" so expensive that it will impose serious limits on the next president.