A Sinking Presidency
The president still exudes confidence, but his ship of state is taking on water-fast
Options. The veto, and the House's failure to override it, sent Bush and the Democrats back to square one. As a new round of negotiations began, both sides said that one option might be to fund the troops but at the same time set nonbinding "benchmarks" for measuring the Iraq government's performance. These goals might include a reduction in sectarian violence and an agreement to share oil revenue among the country's competing factions.
More broadly, Bush doesn't appear to have a Plan B for waging the war itself. Instead, he is gambling that his "surge" of U.S. troops into Iraq will generate positive results this summer and thus cause antiwar sentiment to ease. Neither does he have a Plan B for the rest of his agenda, White House advisers say. His objectives remain the same as they've been for years, and he sees no need for big new initiatives.
Bush still hopes to finish his last 20 months in office with victories on the proposals he has already put forward. He has three main goals-to win congressional passage of his proposals to overhaul the immigration laws, to strengthen his "No Child Left Behind" accountability-in-education policies, and to reduce reliance on foreign oil by encouraging use of alternative fuels. And he plans on being more aggressive in vetoing spending bills emerging from the Democratic Congress. But even Bush realizes that big-ticket goals like partially privatizing Social Security or overhauling healthcare probably are no longer within his grasp.
Despite the many gathering storms, visitors to the West Wing are often struck by how serene the place is. It all flows from Bush's own peace of mind. Aides say he jokes and relaxes as much as ever, makes sure to get away from the Oval Office for mountain-biking jaunts several times a week (keeping his blood pressure low and, he says, clearing his head). And he reports that he sleeps well at night and doesn't allow the pressure to get to him.
But even some former Bush advisers are worried that the mood is misplaced. First and foremost, the Iraq conflict hardly appears to be proceeding as planned. Largely as a result, only about 35 percent of Americans approve of Bush's job performance, one of the lowest ratings on record. Most favor a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, and 54 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning voters want the GOP presidential candidate to take a different approach to the war, according to the Pew Research Center. About 66 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, up from 57 percent earlier this year, according to a late April NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Republican presidential candidates-well aware of how unpopular Bush has become-rarely talk about him in campaign speeches. The three leading contenders-Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney-all support Bush's "surge" of troops into Iraq, but only McCain has made it a frequent talking point-which is considered one reason why he has faded from front-runner status. In last week's initial GOP presidential debate, candidates seemed to feel free to criticize Bush's management of the war effort.