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Volume 3, Number 1               February 2 - 8, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines

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A presidency at the brink

By Robert Kuttner
Boston Globe

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WILL A WAR once again bail out a faltering presidency? Or will it crystallize for voters all of the contradictions of the Bush regime?

Bush's stock was not particularly high on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The economy was wobbly. He had alienated Republican moderates and sacrificed GOP control of the Senate. He was using a tenuous mandate to push radically conservative policies at odds with what most Americans had voted for. Then terrorists struck, and the Bush presidency was transformed.

It has taken 20 months for Bush's slide to resume, yet he has an uncanny ability to step around blunders and deceptions that would sink an ordinary president. Will he do it again with another national security crisis, this time of his own invention?

Consider: His is the worst economic performance of any newly inaugurated president since Herbert Hoover. The economy has lost 2 million jobs since January 2001. Bush's economic program promises to
create only 190,000 jobs this year under the administration's own assumptions. The much-ballyhooed $1.35 trillion tax cut of 2001 has evidently failed to rescue the economy, yet Bush promises more of the same.

The stock market has lost $6.65 trillion in value since he took office. The federal budget has gone from projected surplus to endless deficit. As the debates at Davos have made clear, Bush's Iraq policy
has created the most serious rift between the United States and its NATO allies since the North Atlantic Alliance was founded in 1949. Despite heroic efforts by the administration to rally domestic jingoism, public support for the war absent UN and allied involvement keeps dwindling.

Since December, Bush has suffered a string of setbacks that should have left him reeling. His Senate majority leader made a fool of himself as a closet segregationist, yet Bush won praise for having
contained the damage and installed an ally, Senator Bill Frist, as the replacement. By mid- January, Bush felt confident enough to oppose affirmative action in a key Supreme Court test. He got a respectful press again.

Bush failed to win allied support for his Iraq war, pursued a policy in Korea that mocked his Iraq stance, and also bungled the replacement of his economic team and the reform of the SEC and the Wall Street scandals. Despite a brief New Year rally, the stock market kept sinking. He was going to be an education president, but his own budget program is diverting money from schools. Despite a proclaimed emergency of homeland security, Bush's priorities are forcing states and cities to stint on public safety. Even key Republicans are now distancing themselves from Bush's ''economic stimulus'' plan.

Yet through all of these blunders, Bush has continued to receive an astonishingly kind press. Only in the past two weeks has his general popularity dropped below 60 percent in most polls. Bush gets away with it, first, because he seen as personally likable and, second, because he is viewed as a tough leader in a national crisis. Still, a chasm between rhetoric and performance eventually becomes a credibility gap.

But for the impending war, Bush's presidency seems near a tipping point at which the public and the press belatedly give themselves permission to rethink their trust in the man. But a war will alter that equation, at least in the short run, and Bush seems determined to have his war.

No one, of course, can predict how a war would go. Supporters insist that the ouster of Saddam Hussein will be relatively easy and costless. Even there, however, Bush could well face not his father's turkey shoot of a retreating Iraqi Army across an open desert but hand-to-hand fighting in a dense city with civilian and US military casualties.

And the harder part comes afterward. We just don't know how much this war will destabilize the rest of the world - from the Korean Peninsula to the Indo-Pakistani conflict to the perennial Israel-Palestine cauldron. We do know that war would divert attention at best and invite more terrorist attacks at worst.

If more crises erupt, the administration could take it as vindication for its proclaimed need to be tough rather than the consequences of its own reckless policies.

As commander in chief, Bush, I suspect, will get some months of ''bounce'' in the polls. But by the end of this year, the press and the public should be able to grasp just what a disaster this president is - for liberty, for security, for the economy, and for America's benign role in a dangerous world.

(Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe. )

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

January 29, 2003


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