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.
Ticking off a list that includes a looming winter energy crisis because of high heating oil and natural gas prices, an immigration fight that could further divide his party, negative perceptions of the economy despite strong growth numbers, and overall pessimism about the direction of the country, he added: "It's not like it's a one-shot deal where they hit bottom and then bounce back. I'm not sure they've reached bottom yet."
One immediate question is how Bush will respond to the indictment of Libby and the still-unresolved situation of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. His statement on Friday after special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald outlined the perjury and obstruction charges against Libby was terse and narrowly focused on Libby's situation. Will he use the fact of an ongoing criminal proceeding to avoid offering the public a full accounting of what happened inside his own White House in the unveiling of CIA operative Valerie Plame?
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said presidential actions will speak louder than words. "What American people want in response to challenges is not talk but government leaders that smartly adapt," he said, adding that Bush has done so during past challenges.
Other presidents in trouble have reached for new advisers to signal a fresh start in hopes of rebuilding confidence in their administrations. "An apparent willingness to clean house and to look for people who are not immediately compromised with some of the substantive issues here -- namely the war -- might help," said Walter Dean Burnham, a professor of government at the University of Texas.
That worked well for former president Ronald Reagan after the Iran-contra scandal pushed his approval ratings even lower than Bush's are today. Reagan recruited former senator Howard Baker as his new chief of staff and brought in several other officials without long ties to the administration. But one presidential adviser said a new team is not necessarily the answer Bush is looking for.
"He wants to achieve real things in his second term," a senior official said. "He will make sure he has an agenda and the people around him to fill it. But he is not the type, just because a critic or supporter says you've got to make this change or that [to do so]. . . . He has seen past presidents who made changes in the White House and it didn't accomplish what they hoped it would."
With more than three years left in his presidency, Bush has ample time to regain his footing, according to several presidential scholars. Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas, said: "He has the resources as the incumbent president to change the subject, to change personnel, to change the message of the day, to get something out that says he's going in a fresh direction. But will he triumph like he did in his first term? Unlikely."
Bartlett agreed that turning around public opinion on both domestic issues and Iraq will take time. "When you have GDP [gross domestic product] numbers like we had yesterday [Friday] showing robust growth despite the challenges of Katrina, it's quite remarkable, but the overhang of energy prices is souring people's view of the economy. That's not easy to overcome overnight."
On Iraq, he noted that attitudes toward the war are by now deeply entrenched and said the president will continue to make the case that success there is directly linked to success in fighting terrorism, but as with the domestic economy, the White House team expects no easy breakthrough in public opinion. "We believe that's going to require a sustained effort," he said.
Bush also must consider the degree to which Cheney has now become a liability in his efforts to recover politically. Two Republicans privately said yesterday the taciturn Cheney has become a major burden to the president, and that his association with an unpopular war and proximity to the Libby embarrassment will eat at the administration's credibility. "This 'I'm a sphinx' gig just doesn't get it any more," one of the GOP strategists said.
Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin said Bush faces bad choices as he attempts to regain momentum. The Miers episode raised questions about his judgment and decisiveness, while the leak investigation has raised questions about the administration's ethics.
"He can try to retreat to his base and make them happy, but that will come at great expense," Garin said. "Or his other option is to try to be what he hasn't been up to now, which is a president of consensus who tries to govern from the center. But we saw the toll that he pays from the right for that. So at the moment, he seems to be much more a captive of events."
Events, however, can energize a president as well torment him. Early in Bush's presidency, for example, many saw Bush bleeding influence; the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks infused him with new purpose and public support.
James W. Ceaser, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said there are too many levers at the disposal of a president to leave him without prospects of recovery in times of crisis. The question is how Bush now deals with them. "Looking at things from a distance, you can't go eight years without some of these things," he said. "Now you have to go about doing something about them."