Nearly a year after his re-election, President George W. Bush is in a slump caused by the Iraq war, two hurricanes and a criminal investigation centering on two top White House aides. Republicans are nervously hoping for a rebound.
Bush’s agenda is in tatters. His ambitious plan to change the Social Security retirement system, already faltering, has been submerged by the need to rebuild New Orleans and other areas devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and his fellow Republicans are getting heartburn over the cost.
His bid to divert criticism over the slow federal response to Katrina and improve the daily onslaught of negative headlines by nominating White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court failed.
Her nomination triggered anger from conservatives who doubt Miers’s credentials and skepticism from Democrats who worry that she is anti-abortion.
The American death toll from the Iraq war, launched over weapons of mass destruction that were never found, nears 2,000 amid a raging insurgency and no firm timetable for withdrawal.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room at meetings of Bush’s inner-circle is a special prosecutor’s investigation into who leaked the name to the media of a covert CIA agent in 2003 to try and undermine a former diplomat who became a prominent critic of the war.
The probe appears to be nearing a conclusion. With indictments possible against Bush’s trusted political adviser, Karl Rove, White House officials are bracing for the possibility that Rove might have to step down.
Republicans believe getting past the leak affair is essential to stabilize the shaken Bush White House. Nor do they see Bush dumping Miers despite calls for her to withdraw.
“Nothing is going to change until this investigation comes to a close,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed. “It has frozen the political landscape since it heated up in August.”
CHALLENGING TIME FOR BUSH
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said for Bush the current period was “the most challenging of his presidency, but not that unusual from a historical perspective.”
He noted that every president since Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s has had a job approval in the mid-30s or lower at some point during their time in office.
Bush loyalists insist there is a business-as-usual attitude among administration officials, who have grappled with crises ranging from the September 11, 2001, attacks, to economic recession to the worst hurricane in U.S. history.
“This White House has been subject to so many things beyond its control that it is very easy for us to focus on the things that we can influence,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy.
Republican consultant Charlie Black said he talked with Rove recently and showed no sign that he was about to leave. If the leak probe was weighing on him, “it was not apparent to any of us who has dealt with him,” said Black.
David Gergen, a professor of public service at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who served as a White House adviser to four presidents, called it “gut-check time” for the Bush White House.
“This is a time when people go to the meetings, they go through the paces, and they claim they’re not distracted but they’re only pretending,” he told CNN.
Republicans are already talking about next year as the time when they hope some of Bush’s problems will be behind him.
They hope he will focus on tax reform and cutting federal spending and use that as a way to defeat Democrats hungry to make gains in the 2006 mid-term elections.
“There’s still three more years,” said Reed. “Look, this has been a rough patch, as rough as this modern-day Republican Party has been through in 30 years. But while this has been going on, look at the other side of the aisle, no leaders, no ideas, no agenda.”