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.
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.
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."
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 bÃÂÃÂªte 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.
This story appears in the May 14, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.