A Sinking Presidency
The president still exudes confidence, but his ship of state is taking on water-fast
What of his final 20 months? If anything, things will get tougher, challenging "the decider" as never before. Even Bush now admits the war in Iraq will remain bloody and costly for a long time to come. And congressional Democrats seem intent on keeping up the pressure for withdrawal, as an earlier Congress did during the Vietnam War (story, Page 47).
Just as worrying in the West Wing, the new Democratic majority in Congress is moving aggressively to investigate the administration after six years in which the Republican majority conducted little oversight. Rep. Henry Waxman of California is fast becoming the West Wing's bÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂªte noir because of his wide-ranging probes as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Backed by subpoena power, Waxman is looking into everything from the prewar claims of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Iraq had WMDs to possible war profiteering.
Departures. In foreign affairs, Bush's influence isn't what it used to be as more leaders sense weakness. Russia's Vladimir Putin is displaying increasing independence and shows little interest in the kind of democratization Bush has long championed. Bush has lost or is losing some of his closest friends around the world. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, saddled with strong public opposition to his support for the Iraq war, is expected to leave office in the next few weeks. Bush has lost three other strong allies who left office in Italy, Spain, and Japan.
Above all, everything depends on the outcome in Iraq. "The war is the central element of his presidency," says a former adviser. "Because of the war, he's gone from incredible strength to incredible weakness. Shakespeare couldn't have written it better-the boy king."
Yet Bush presses on. Legislators, journalists, and friends come away from private meetings with him with new respect for his command of the issues dear to him-especially Iraq and the Middle East. At one recent meeting, the president spent more than an hour describing, country by country, in impressive detail, the dire consequences of a quick withdrawal. He was compellingly persuasive, at least to the small group of allies who were listening. The problem may be that many other Americans are tuning him out.