A Sinking Presidency
The president still exudes confidence, but his ship of state is taking on water-fast
Bitterness. Deepening Bush's problems is a new book by former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet that opens old wounds about Iraq. Tenet says the president and Vice President Dick Cheney were hellbent on war and didn't allow a "serious debate" over whether Saddam Hussein posed a real threat. Administration officials vigorously dispute this, but it revived the bitter debate over the weapons of mass destruction that Bush said were in Iraq-in a basic rationale for the invasion-but were never found.
The bill of particulars goes on. Lax medical care for injured U.S. soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center has raised basic questions about the administration's competence. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel's investigation of possible illegal White House participation in the dismissal of at least one U.S. attorney (story, Page 44) is sure to cause more embarrassment. Bush is also taking flak for unwavering support of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales even as damaging revelations about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys continue to spill into public view. And he is being lambasted for backing Paul Wolfowitz as president of the World Bank despite charges that the former Defense Department official, an architect of the Iraq war, unfairly promoted a female friend and arranged a big pay raise for her.
Even some Republicans are turning against the president. Last week, in a column titled "The Waning of the GOP," conservative icon William F. Buckley argued that "the political problem of the Bush adminstration is grave, possibly beyond the point of rescue."
"We're seeing the very early demise of an administration," says a former White House adviser to Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, with considerable sadness. "It usually happens six months before a president leaves office in a second term, but in this case it's happening now."
Some critics say Bush lost his image of competence because of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. "It ended the day after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans," exposing vast faults in the government's disaster response system, says the DNC'S Dean. Since then, Bush also has lost the country's confidence in his trustworthiness because of his overly rosy predictions of progress in Iraq, Dean argues.
Former 2004 Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd recently broke with his former boss by declaring that Bush is "secluded and bubbled in"-a reference to the protective "bubble" that insulates the White House. Dowd's assessment is shared by many Republicans in Washington. "Isolation is inevitable in any White House," says a former Bush aide who returned to the West Wing recently to chat with former colleagues. Now that he is out of the bubble, the former aide says, he can see an isolation he didn't recognize before. "People in the White House are talking only to each other, reconfirming each other's and the president's perceptions and judgments," he says.
White House officials say Bush and his key aides do listen to advice, including counsel from many outsiders, in a constant campaign of outreach. They say some Republicans are upset-"sour grapes," snapped one official-because their ideas have been rejected. "[Bush] is constantly getting a whole range and variety of opinions," White House counselor Dan Bartlett told U.S. News. "I don't believe there are any blind spots in the White House."