For Bush, Advances But Not Approval

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007

The war in Iraq seems to have taken a turn for the better and the opposition at home has failed in all efforts to impose its own strategy. North Korea is dismantling its nuclear program. The budget deficit is falling. A new attorney general has been confirmed despite objections from the left.

After more than two years of being buffeted by one political disaster after another, President Bush and his strategists think they may finally be getting back at least a bit of their footing. While still facing enormous challenges, from the crisis in Pakistan to the backlash over children's health care, they hope Bush has arrested his downward spiral and established a better foundation for the remainder of his time in office.

In many ways, the shifting political fortunes may owe as much to the absence of bad news as to any particular good news. No one lately has been indicted, botched a hurricane relief effort or shot someone in a hunting accident. Instead, pictures from Iraq show people returning to the streets as often as they show a new suicide bombing. And Bush has bolstered morale inside the West Wing and rallied his Republican base through a strategy of confrontation with the Democratic Congress, built on the expansive use of his veto pen.

Yet none of this has particularly impressed the public at large, which remains skeptical that anything meaningful has changed and still gives Bush record-low approval ratings. The disconnect highlights his dilemma heading into the last year of his administration: Can anything short of a profound event repair an unpopular president's public standing so late in his tenure? Can tactical victories in Washington salvage a wounded presidency?

"The law of averages is finally turning our way," said Mark McKinnon, a Bush adviser. "Iraq's a big part of it." But it will have to be sustained over months to come to turn around public opinion, he added. "The fact that there's not substantial movement is not surprising. We have to get through the next part of next year and the [public] will start to look at the presidency through a different prism."

Some Democrats agree that Bush seems to be doing better politically, but said the White House is fooling itself to think it amounts to much of a recovery. Even though security has improved in Iraq, political reconciliation remains elusive. Economic signs at home appear increasingly worrisome. And, they said, the public has largely made up its mind on Bush.

"Look, they've stopped the bleeding, but they're not getting well," said William Galston, a former aide to Bill Clinton and a sometime adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). "While people are pleased that the war is going better, I think the American people have closed the book on the war. They don't think it was worth entering, they don't think it was worth fighting. So tactical victories on the ground that might have made a difference two years ago aren't moving the needle right now."

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said Bush's legacy has already been set, and it's more Franklin Pierce than Harry S. Truman. "George Bush's acolytes around the White House may think he's doing okay, but America doesn't," he said. "We now have a mess on our hands, and America's reputation is sullied around the world. George Bush may be doing well. It's the rest of America I'm concerned about."

Still, the changing dynamics in Washington were evident last week. Bush vetoed a spending bill for education, health-care and labor programs, and the House did not override him. The House passed, but the Senate rejected, another attempt to force Bush to withdraw troops from Iraq. Democrats have grown so frustrated about their failure that Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) was left to grouse about "this bully we have in the White House."

Bush, like other presidents, does better when he has a foil to play off of, whether an international enemy such as Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein, or a domestic political adversary such as Al Gore and Sen. John F. Kerry. Through much of 2005 and 2006, as he cratered politically, Bush had no particularly prominent rival to contrast with. But now he has the Democrats, who took over Congress in January and have provided him ammunition as their poll numbers fall.

"There's a reason they've become unpopular," said Karl Rove, who recently stepped down as deputy White House chief of staff. "They've taken stands that make them look churlish, small, petty and more interested in scoring political points than in doing good things for the country."

An us-vs.-them framework is comfortable for Bush. Some Republicans said he appears more spirited as he engages in a showdown over spending. "It's really a reinvigorated guy here," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, who traveled with Bush recently to his home state of South Carolina. "It's noticeable. Things just seem to be moving forward and hitting on all cylinders."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company