Mr. Bush at Bay

Thursday, March 8, 2007

THE WHITE House must have the feel of an overworked emergency room these days. From the Walter Reed story to the U.S. attorney firings to I. Lewis Libby's conviction, one mishandled crisis follows the next piece of bad news. With the grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan overshadowing all and the lethargic response to Hurricane Katrina rarely forgotten, President Bush in his second term has appeared battered, bruised and often bewildered -- and never more so than this past week. With each blow, it seems less likely that he might accomplish anything in his remaining time in office.

And yet we'd caution once again against writing his administration off entirely. For one thing, his unaccustomed exposure to challenge, so bracingly on view in the new Democratic-controlled Congress in the past few days, may prove as healthy for the administration as it is for the nation. The congressional hearings on veterans' care and on the firings of eight U.S. attorneys were welcome signs of life in a legislature that for six years allowed administration excesses and errors to roll past unquestioned. Firing Army brass and promising a serious commission to study veterans' care are early steps, but they show Mr. Bush can adjust course when forced. Imagine what a favor Republican leaders of Congress would have done by similarly pressing him, in a timely way, on Abu Ghraib or the Iraqi occupation.

Nor has the administration taken to its bunker and stopped trying. Progress in the six-party talks on North Korea reflects energy and flexibility. There's no similar movement yet from Iran, but the administration seems to be shaping a policy that combines pressure with diplomacy in a way that at least has potential. Congressional Democrats and the administration are in active negotiations to jump-start long-stalled trade deals. And then there's immigration.

The president heads to Latin America today on a six-day tour that will end in Mexico. The U.S.-Mexico relationship is vital, and no issue matters more to it than rational and humane immigration reform. Few issues are more important domestically, either. Mr. Bush understands the needed elements: a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens, a legal route for future immigration and real enforcement of the law. But it will take concerted presidential leadership, not just understanding, to bring enough Republicans on board to provide Democrats cover to pass a sensible bill. In the past when leadership was needed on this issue, the president ducked. But for a beleaguered presidency, the domestic and international success of immigration reform could be a tonic -- maybe even a legacy.

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