presidency at the brink
By Robert Kuttner
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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
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
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
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
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