Analysis

Buffeted With Problems, Bush Must Chart a Recovery

President Bush responded tersely to Friday's indictment but still must contend with a trial that could involve other White House insiders.
President Bush responded tersely to Friday's indictment but still must contend with a trial that could involve other White House insiders. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2005

President Bush's descent from the euphoria of an against-the-odds reelection victory one year ago this week to the current reality of a White House in crisis has been as rapid as it has been unexpected. Presidential advisers and outside analysts say the route back to genuine recovery is likely to be slow and difficult -- and without a clear blueprint for success.

Friday's indictment of Vice President Cheney's chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby dealt another big blow to public confidence in the administration, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. Bush's approval rating fell to 39 percent -- the lowest recorded by this poll in his presidency -- and a majority of Americans said the charges signal broader ethical problems in the administration. By a ratio of 3 to 1, those surveyed said the level of honesty in government has declined during Bush's tenure.

With its ability to command public attention and frame the national agenda, the presidency is a supremely resilient institution, and such recent occupants as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have bounced back from adversity. But Bush faces such a complex set of problems -- an unpopular war in Iraq, high energy prices, the costly challenge of rebuilding New Orleans, a fractured party, disaffected independent voters and little goodwill on Capitol Hill -- that his prospects are particularly daunting.

Beyond that is the question of whether Bush needs to make fundamental adjustments to a governing and political style that has given him electoral success but also left the country deeply polarized. With his Republican base showing signs of discontent and independent voters more disaffected than ever, Bush faces a potential tradeoff on every important decision ahead of him that could cause him to lose as much ground with one part of the public as he gains with another.

Whether he can devise a strategy that successfully navigates between the right and the center may determine just how much he can achieve for himself and his party through the rest of his presidency.

The president's advisers recognize the reality in which they find themselves. "What the public wants is back-to-basics governance and decision making," presidential counselor Dan Bartlett said yesterday. "This is not a situation in which it changes overnight or that there's a 'Hail Mary' pass that changes the dynamic. . . . There's not a magic bullet."

That assessment comes after one of the toughest weeks of Bush's presidency that included the perjury and obstruction charges against Libby, an embarrassing defeat over the nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, and the 2,000th U.S. death in the war in Iraq.

White House officials see recovery as a step-by-step process, beginning with the announcement of a new Supreme Court nominee who they hope will overcome the wreckage left by Miers's withdrawal last Thursday. Between now and the end of the year, they hope to push a budget through Congress that includes both funds for hurricane rebuilding and offsetting spending cuts, and also engage with the hot-button issues of immigration and border security.

Abroad, they look to the Dec. 15 elections for a new government in Iraq as a potentially significant benchmark in helping to convince the American people that Bush's policy is working. With presidential trips scheduled to Latin America, China, Japan and elsewhere in November, officials foresee opportunities for Bush to command international attention and regain some of his lost momentum.

Early next year, Bush will attempt to use his State of the Union address to chart a revised agenda for the rest of his term, which his advisers believe will help signal changes in direction and emphasis from the past year.

Outside analysts agreed that Bush has plenty of time left to extricate himself from his problems but expressed skepticism that things will work out as well as the president's advisers hope. "The Bush administration, up until recently, has been a study of success built on success," said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "What that gave him was momentum. Now the chain has been broken, and it's very difficult to assemble a sequence of likely successes."

A Republican strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a bark-off analysis of Bush's problems, was far gloomier, noting that the situation facing Bush is about as bad as it can get. "What's in front of him are very big structural problems," he said.


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