Can Bush Fill the Leadership Vacuum He Created?

by Stuart Rothenberg May 8, 2006 · 10:10 AM EDT

Once upon a time, polls showed that most Americans believed George W. Bush was a strong leader. Now, fewer than half of those polled give him credit for leadership, and his poll numbers also have plummeted on integrity and honesty.

In separate incidents, two Democratic pollsters told me recently that when they poll voters about issues and the problems facing the country, respondents no longer volunteer President Bush’s name.

“He’s irrelevant,” one told me, explaining that those being polled will mention the president by name only when prompted to do so.

Given the issues facing the country and the White House today, that’s a stunning development.

Polls showing Bush’s job approval in the mid-30s have dramatically reduced the president’s clout nationally and even on GOP-controlled Capitol Hill.

Sure, Republican candidates for Congress this year still want the president to come to their districts for a fundraiser, but they also want him out of town as soon as possible after the checks come in. And on Capitol Hill, Bush seems to have little muscle.

The president is neither loved nor feared anymore, which is a problem for any chief executive trying to wield power.

The country could get along like this if the international arena was relatively calm and the nation could stumble its way through the next few years. But although the economy’s fundamentals look good, the country is facing problems that demand immediate attention.

Iran. The saber-rattling from Iran’s leaders and the country’s apparent progress in developing nuclear weapons requires a strong president who can marshal both domestic and international opinion.

Energy. High prices at the pump are an obvious short-term political issue, but drivers will get used to paying more than $3 per gallon at some point. Still, energy is a very serious long-term problem, and the nation needs to address it sooner rather than later. The growth of populist, socialist regimes in South America that are expropriating foreign investments, particularly in the energy area — oil in Venezuela and natural gas in Bolivia are two current examples — raises new questions about the United States’ access to energy. It also raises questions about our nation’s influence throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Medicare. A new report from Medicare’s trustees now states that the system could go broke in 2018 if nothing is done. Nobody wants new taxes, but nobody wants to cut or delay benefits, either.

Immigration. The current debate over immigration is a mess. Both extremes are dictating far too much of the debate, while the responsible middle is being out-shouted. Responsible voices exist, but there is no sign of movement on Capitol Hill. This issue is already at a full boil, with the problem getting worse every day.

Iraq. It’s a mess. Maybe there is progress; maybe there isn’t. But the public isn’t optimistic about the situation or the administration’s handling of the situation.

Each of these problems seems overwhelming, and given the president’s weakness, he lacks the political clout to dictate an answer to Congress and mobilize public support. In addition, fundamental divisions within the country and deep distrust of the White House among at least half of Americans are paralyzing government’s ability to grapple with these problems.

House Republicans seem unwilling to compromise on immigration reform. They prefer to rail on about “amnesty” than to work on a compromise that will stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the country while establishing a guest worker program that deals with the political and economic reality of millions of illegal immigrants who have been residing and working in this country for years.

While the White House has staked out a reasonable position on immigration, the president seems unwilling to go to the mat on the issue.

For their part, Democrats are in full campaign mode, looking for photo opportunities to attack Republicans and the president, and avoiding opportunities to work on real solutions to problems. That’s probably a wise strategy when it comes to winning elections, but it’s a hell of a way to govern. At the moment, Democrats are far more interested in scoring political points than addressing the country’s needs.

While the president’s power has seriously eroded, it hasn’t disappeared completely. The president needs to make himself more relevant, which means trying to throw his weight around (among Republicans primarily) on Capitol Hill and using the bully pulpit to tackle the nation’s problems head-on. I’m not talking about the same speeches he’s given over and over about Iraq or Social Security or immigration. He needs to offer new solutions, and certainly new rhetoric, that make him relevant again.

For Capitol Hill Republicans, there should be a strong incentive for helping a newly reorganized, and possibly re-energized, White House. No matter how fast and how far Congressional Republicans run away from the president, the midterm elections will be a referendum on his performance. The further he falls, the more vulnerable they become.

Republican advisers undoubtedly will worry that the president could suffer losses if he stakes his reputation on a particular compromise or agenda that fails. They shouldn’t worry about it. Another political defeat wouldn’t change the president’s reputation or standing in the polls. The White House doesn’t have much left to lose.