Bush fighting to stay relevant

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With George W. Bush struggling to stay relevant in his final 22 months in the White House, his administration is looking more and more like the incredible shrinking presidency.

U.S. President George W. Bush gathers for a group picture with soldiers during his visit to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in the Californian desert, April 4, 2007. REUTERS/Jason Reed

He finds himself increasingly hemmed in by public approval ratings stuck in the low 30 percent range, a hostile Democratic majority in Congress and an unpopular war that has eroded his credibility at home and abroad.

“The real danger is that the president becomes politically irrelevant, that he presides instead of leads,” said Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

Cracks have also formed in his inner circle, and many fellow Republicans are ever more skeptical of his ability to help them hold onto the presidency in the 2008 election.

At the same time, Bush’s attempt to use the megaphone of his office to shape national debate is increasingly being drowned out by public disenchantment with his Iraq policy and doubts over his leadership, analysts say.

As he settles in for the Easter holiday break at his Texas ranch, he will no doubt be contemplating the rest of his presidency. Many experts are skeptical he can salvage it.

“This is a full-blown lame-duck period in which the president’s stature is diminishing,” Madonna said. “Barring a crisis, Congress and the American people won’t be paying much attention to what he has to say.”

To make matters worse, Bush is finding himself crowded off the political calendar by an increasingly front-loaded presidential primary race, which has turned the spotlight on potential successors faster than in earlier campaigns.

That may help explain why Bush, who has vowed to “sprint” to the end of his second term, is starting to embrace “small ball” policy tactics. Aides once derided this approach, adapted from a baseball strategy of seeking incremental advances, as the hallmark of his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton.

A telling example is how Bush has devoted large chunks of time in recent months to promoting ethanol as a gasoline alternative, a pet project that has generated little public enthusiasm and which some critics say is too little, too late.

The initiative has been marked by a series of appearances with Bush donning white lab coats to tour ethanol research centers and posing alongside “flex-fuel” vehicles.


The political reality, however, is that Bush’s energy plan stands as little chance as the rest of his domestic agenda -- health care, Social Security and immigration reform -- of getting past newly empowered Democrats angry over Iraq.

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said that while bipartisan cooperation is still possible, “At this stage, Democrats are reluctant to give the president a major policy success.”

They are instead defying his veto threats and pressing ahead with legislation linking Iraq war funding to a troop withdrawal timetable, calling it the will of voters who gave them control of Congress in the November elections. Bush says it would undercut the war effort.

The looming showdown is another reflection of Bush’s decline from approval ratings of 90 percent after the September 11 attacks to near the low point of his presidency today.

Bush denies he is slipping into lame-duck status, and the White House insists he has the ear of the American people.

But mindful of his unpopularity, aides seem more intent than ever that he play to sympathetic audiences. He recently addressed the American Legion and a cattlemen’s group and stopped at a California army base en route to his Texas ranch.

An avid baseball fan, Bush also declined to throw out the first pitch of the Major League season this week. Aides blamed a scheduling conflict. But there were suspicions the White House feared he would be booed.

Adding to a sense of increasing isolation, few of Bush’s own Republicans have joined him in backing his embattled attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, against a Democratic outcry over the firing of eight federal prosecutors.

Bush could still try to turn the tables on the Democrats as Clinton did to a Republican-led House of Representatives in 1995 when he outmaneuvered them in a bitter budget fight.

“Bush could get some political mileage if he can cast them as a do-nothing, obstructionist Congress,” MacManus said.

But it was Bush on the defensive at a news conference this week when asked about a New York Times interview with Matthew Dowd, chief strategist of his 2004 campaign, who said he had lost faith in the president and described him as “bubbled in.”

Bush suggested it was Dowd’s emotional reaction to having a son in the armed forces who was “deployable” to Iraq, and he bristled when asked about conservative columnist Robert Novak writing he had become estranged from his party in Congress.