The factors that make President Bush a vulnerable incumbent have almost nothing to do with his opponent, John F. Kerry. They stem directly from two closely linked, high-stakes policy gambles that Bush chose on his own. Neither has worked out as he hoped.
The first gamble was the decision to attack Iraq; the second, to avoid paying for the war. The rationale for the first decision was to remove the threat of a hostile dictator armed with weapons of mass destruction. The weapons were never found. The rationale for the second decision -- the determination to keep cutting taxes in the face of far higher spending for Iraq and the war on terrorism -- was to stimulate the American economy and end the drought of jobs. The deficits have accumulated, but the jobs have still not come back.
If Bush can win reelection despite the failure of his two most consequential -- and truly radical -- decisions, he will truly be a political miracle man. But as his own nominating convention approaches, the odds are against him.
Why call these decisions radical? From World War I right through the Persian Gulf War, the United States had never initiated hostilities or invaded a major country without the provocation of an attack from that country on this nation or its allies. Bush changed that by announcing a new doctrine of "preemptive war" and applying it first to Iraq. Iraq was a military dictatorship with a horrible record of human rights abuse and a well-earned reputation as an international malefactor that had attacked its neighbors.
But the urgency that Bush cited for moving against Saddam Hussein was the threat he posed by his possession of chemical and biological weapons and his pursuit of nuclear arms. "Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are controlled by a murderous tyrant," Bush said in his major domestic speech justify- ing the war. "If we know that Saddam Hus- sein has dangerous weapons today -- and we do -- does it make any sense for the world to wait to confront him as he grows even stronger and develops even more dangerous weapons?"
Long after Hussein was defeated and captured, the American forces occupying Iraq have found no evidence of the supposed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. The rationale for a war that has taken nearly 1,000 American lives, caused several thousand American casualties and cost well over $100 billion does not exist.
Linked to the decision to go to war was the decision not to do what every other wartime American president has done -- raise taxes to pay for the cost of hostilities. Instead, in the face of growing annual deficits, Bush continued to press a compliant Republican Congress for more and bigger tax cuts. In 2003, when he asked Congress for $87 billion for Iraq, Bush said, "I heard somebody say, 'Well, what we need to do is have a tax increase to pay for this.' That's an absurd notion. You don't raise taxes when an economy is recovering. Matter of fact, lower taxes will help enhance economic recovery. We want our people going back to work."
Despite the triple dose of stimulus -- tax cuts on top of historically low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve Board on top of a huge increase in federal defense and domestic spending -- the recovery from a not-very-severe recession during the first year of Bush's term has been painfully weak. Especially when it comes to his No. 1 goal of producing jobs.
As a result, Bush finds himself defending the loss of more than 1 million jobs during his tenure -- the first president, as Democrats love to point out, since Herbert Hoover to suffer an actual job loss in office. The 32,000 jobs added to the economy in July were the smallest number this year, raising fears that the recovery proclaimed last spring may be losing steam.
Just before the new numbers came out, the president was bragging to campaign audiences, "When it comes to creating jobs for America's workers, we've turned the corner, and we're not turning back." Democrats are making that phrase as famous -- or infamous -- as the "Mission Accomplished" sign on the aircraft carrier Bush visited in a premature celebration of the end of major fighting in Iraq.
The president has suffered other blows to his credibility -- a survey of seniors earlier this month showed major doubts about his touted Medicare prescription drug plan. But they pale in importance compared with Iraq and the economy. In The Post's polls every month since January, more voters have voiced disapproval of his performance on those two issues than approval.
Time is short for changing people's minds. Bush is dragging two huge weights -- and he has no one to blame but himself.