The Disappearing President

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

CAN THIS PRESIDENCY be saved? President Bush's approval rating has plummeted to a dismal 38 percent, according to the latest Post-ABC News poll. Democrats will rejoice at their improving prospects of recovering a majority in Congress. But a damaged president governing for nearly three more years in a dangerous world is no cause for rejoicing. With that in mind, we offer Mr. Bush, at no charge, some advice on a fresh start.

The president's two largest handicaps aren't going away. He's spending most of his political capital, as he noted recently, on the war in Iraq. He's right to do so: As long as there remains a chance of achieving a political settlement in Iraq, that must be the president's first priority. He could be more engaged and more open to fresh thinking; he could, for example, embrace the new bipartisan commission on Iraq policy established at the urging of Congress -- especially of Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) -- and led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former representative Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). But nothing he does on Iraq is likely to do him any good in the polls.

Nor will the poisonous partisanship in Washington, with Democrats united in their desire to see Mr. Bush fail while his erstwhile Republican allies scurry for cover. Mr. Bush wasn't interested in bipartisanship when he was flying high; he's certainly not going to find it now. So we propose no initiatives that, however needed, would require radical cooperation across the aisle -- no entitlement reform, no reshaping of the tax code.

Nonetheless, there are things Mr. Bush could do. He spent his first five years insisting that research on climate change is all the government need do. But the danger signs have steadily strengthened, the cost of inaction could be catastrophic, and there is ample space for creative policies that would begin to address the problem without harming the economy. Imagine if he embraced the evidence, and the opportunity.

He could seize hold of the immigration debate, where he has provided wavering leadership at best, to insist not only on comprehensive, generous reform but also on a deepened relationship with Mexico, including investment aid, that would offer the ultimate best hope for solving the border problem. Mr. Bush could renew his oft-stated commitment to ethical government by championing lobbying reform. He could give meaning to his statement of seven months ago, in an artfully staged speech from New Orleans: "We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action." That's the last we heard of it; what if he decided to show it wasn't just a sound bite to get him through hurricane season?

Or imagine the positive shock he could deliver by announcing that he would no longer tolerate the scandal of U.S. abuse of detainees, eight of whom have been tortured to death and at least 98 of whom have died in custody. Acknowledging the long-term damage done to the nation by the mistreatment, and by the refusal to punish any but the lowest-level servicemen, Mr. Bush could promise to reform the system, allow the Red Cross into his secret prisons, and work with Congress to provide a legal framework for detention, interrogation and trials.

Could good policy and good politics go together? When you've tried everything else, it's worth a shot.

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