After the week that has become branded as the worst of his presidency, George W. Bush put on his game face and launched a campaign to create the second term of his second term and leave office with dignity if not a legacy.
Will he be able to pull it off? Bush is nothing if not a determined and focused campaigner. But he faces some ominous challenges in this, his last campaign.
The rapid naming of Judge Sam Alito to fill Sandra Day O’Connor’s Supreme Court seat was an attempt to sweep Harriet Miers from the daily news. To some degree it has done that, although Miers still gets press to put Alito in perspective. (This guy looks good. Where was he when the president was picking the woman comedian Bill Maher described as “the most qualified person within 30 feet of his office”?)
And there is evidence in several polls that the Miers pick convinced a majority of Americans that the president bases his choices on personal loyalties and cronyism, not qualifications. That conclusion is not going away with the Alito choice. In some ways, it solidifies that view by making clear some better choices had already been vetted by the White House.
The image of Bush relying on a tight circle of advisers is going to be reenforced as special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into Vice President Cheney’s former Chief of Staff “Scooter” Libby moves forward. Even if there are no more indictments, this story will play out for months with a continuing series of glimpses behind the curtain at how this White House works. The image of a cabal of close advisers who have the president’s ear is going to be reinforced by Fitzgerald’s prosecution of this case.
Bush tried to change the subject Tuesday with his $7 billion campaign to combat bird flu. While the threat of a pandemic is a very real problem, there are both practical and political challenges to the president’s proposal. First, we can’t make a virus to fight a disease that hasn’t appeared yet. Second, will the American people trust the government that botched the hurricanes so badly?
Which is another story that won’t go away. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s inept response to three hurricanes in a row is a story that continues to generate coverage on cable and broadcast television. The poignancy of families still without shelter, electricity and water is just great television.
As the recovery drags on, there will continue to be an audience for updates and personal vignettes. It will be some time before this one goes away and there is little the president can do to push the story into the background.
And of course the 800-pound gorilla is Iraq. The White House is trying hard to convince us the war is going well with an endless stream of Generals to face the cameras and even resorting to the ham-handed teleconference of several weeks ago. They are stalling for time, hoping the December elections will bring renewed faith in the administration’s ability to successfully wage this war.
The real start date of the new second term will be the president’s State of the Union message. In January he can set the tone for the midterm elections and lay out a program that he can achieve and that will leave his mark. But the signs are not good that he’ll be able to do that. His initial attempts to change the debate face some overwhelming obstacles.
This president has demonstrated that he’s tone deaf when it comes to hearing where the electorate wants to go. Despite polls that showed only minimal support for his Social Security reforms, he squandered months of time and valuable political capital trying to sell that proposal. He and his advisers overestimated his persuasive ability then and could do so again.
To restart the second term, the president needs to clean house. He needs new advisers with a fresh point of view, people who will listen to America’s voices. He needs to develop new ideas that resonate with voters — a clear end to Iraq, lower energy prices, faith that the economy will grow.
But Bush has not been good at painting such a vision — or at admitting there are problems that need to be fixed. If he can’t learn to do that, there will be no revival of the second term and the president may well face a Democratic congress with a mandate for change.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.