A Sinking Presidency
The president still exudes confidence, but his ship of state is taking on water-fast
President Bush's admiration for Abraham Lincoln knows no bounds. In a recent meeting at the White House, Bush told visitors how Lincoln (whose portrait he has installed in the Oval Office) persevered in the Civil War despite many defeats on the battlefield, tens of thousands of casualties, and doubts among Northern voters that the conflict could ever be won. As the campaign of 1864 approached, Bush related, Lincoln admitted privately that he didn't think he would be re-elected, but pursued his policies anyway. Bush also described how Lincoln pressed on despite his grief when his beloved 11-year-old son Willie died in February 1862. The visitors came away with the conviction that Bush sees himself in Lincoln's mold more deeply than ever.
To Bush's critics, the incident is unsettling. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, noting that the president has also compared himself to Harry Truman, told U.S. News: "This is delusional-comparing the equivalent of Warren Harding to two of our greatest presidents!" Adds presidential historian Robert Dallek, author of Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power: "He may come across to some people as a man of principle, but a great majority see him as stubborn and unyielding. ... And everything he touches turns to dust."
This is all nonsense, according to senior White House officials. They say that Bush isn't delusional at all and that history will vindicate him, just as it vindicated Lincoln and Truman. "He believes the correctness of his policies-including the war in Iraq-may not be recognized for 10, 15 years," says a Bush adviser. Adds another confidant: "If something reaches his level, it tends to be bad news, but he keeps it all in perspective, and there's no equivocation."
These assessments reflect a fundamental fact about George W. Bush's presidency as it approaches what many consider a twilight stage. Despite a cascading series of setbacks that convey the impression of a White House in crisis, Bush continues to exude an aura of calm and self-confidence. Like him or not-and he is one of the most polarizing leaders in American history-he rarely if ever backs down or exhibits self-doubt. This intransigence infuriates his critics and delights his admirers, and it will remain perhaps the most vivid characteristic of his leadership. Friends say one of Bush's favorite self-descriptions is "the decider." It's an inelegant but apt definition of his whole approach to governing. Whether it's an approach that still works is another question entirely.
Bush aides say their boss can be pragmatic, but he won't compromise his core convictions, as shown by his veto last week of a $124 billion bill to fund the Iraq war and at the same time set a timetable for pulling out U.S. troops. "Setting a deadline for withdrawal would demoralize the Iraqi people, would encourage killers across the broader Middle East and send a signal that America will not keep its commitments," the president declared minutes after his veto.
Democratic leaders, newly in charge of Congress, countered that the Bush administration has mismanaged the conflict and mired U.S. troops in a civil war. They add that most Americans now favor withdrawal, an argument supported by the polls. But Bush's stand illustrates the larger point that defines his presidency: Once he sets a course, he rarely changes it.