Feature

Bush

Can he recover his lost popularity?

The 'œsecond-term curse' has struck again, said Kenneth M. Duberstein, former chief of staff for Ronald Reagan, in the Los Angeles Times. Every president in recent history has fallen on hard times after being re-elected, from Dwight Eisenhower to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton. Now, just one year after George W. Bush jauntily announced he planned to spend the 'œpolitical capital' he'd acquired by winning a second term, he too finds himself besieged and unpopular. His approval ratings have sagged to 39 percent, following bad stumbles on the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, Social Security, and the Harriet Miers nomination. Quite obviously, Bush and his inner circle have succumbed to the classic second-term pitfalls: the arrogance that comes with winning re-election, overreaching, and 'œtoo much communal drinking from the same Kool-Aid.'

Some second-term presidents have bounced back, said Todd S. Purdum in The New York Times. But first, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton all admitted their mistakes. They then infused their staffs with fresh blood, and looked for a new, more popular agenda. That's not happening in this White House. 'œThey're not reaching out,' said a veteran Republican close to the White House. 'œThey're in a bunker mentality.' Now is no time to retreat to the bunker, said Dan Balz in The Washington Post. Bush's traditional strategy'”playing to his conservative base and thumbing his nose at his opponents'”has outlasted its usefulness. The president is still facing a series of intractable and politically dangerous problems: skyrocketing home heating costs, the fight over illegal immigration, and pressure to withdraw troops from Iraq, among others. To win back public support, he needs to fulfill his 2000 campaign pledge, and evolve into a 'œuniter, not a divider.'

Fortunately, said William Kristol in The Weekly Standard, the worst is over. The CIA-Plame case'”which the Democrats had hoped would paralyze this administration'”fizzled with the indictment of only one person, I. Lewis 'œScooter' Libby. Miers is already just a bad memory. To get his momentum back, Bush should now 'œgo on the offensive' and stand up for conservative principles. He should find ways to cut federal spending, demand that Congress make his tax cuts permanent, 'œand above all, make strides toward winning the war in Iraq.' Democrats are chortling now, but Bush's 'œbeaten-down political fortunes should be ripe for a rebound.'

A rebound, though, would require Bush to take up 'œthe hard work of actual governing,' said Lewis Gould in The Washington Post. And that's not this president's strength. In Karl Rove's 'œpermanent campaign,' the Bush administration focuses broadly on a couple of hot-button issues, and relies on 'œstage-managed events' to provide the 'œappearance of a chief executive in charge of the nation's destiny.'

Joe Klein

Time

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