Time for Dubya to Get His Act Together

My job, watching the White House, has been exceedingly painful this past week.

This country belongs to us all. A weakened presidency does us no good abroad and no good at home. George W. Bush will be the president for three more years. He needs to get his act together.

Is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? Questionable.

The main problem for this president (it’s tempting from his recent stubborn behavior to call him “Junior”) is that he is perpetually stuck in campaign mode. For heaven’s sake, the election is over. He doesn’t seem to realize that there is no next race for him. He is hurting, not helping, his Republican colleagues in next year’s congressional election. He needs to rediscover what it means to be president of everyone.

Despite his protestations, Bush does pay attention to the polls. Unfortunately, he’s not learning from them.

Those polls now show that fewer than four out of ten Americans respect him as a good leader. Most damning, a majority thinks he is not honest or trustworthy. Polls can change overnight, but this is not good territory for a politician.

This past week the country passed another horrific milestone _ 2,000 Americans and another 30,000 Iraqis dead in Iraq. Yes, Iraq has a new constitution, but it is badly flawed and won’t deliver the equal rights or democracy the administration promised. The president’s response to the deaths was to argue that more must die to justify the deaths so far.

This was the week the president got a blow from an unexpected quarter. His father’s best friend and former national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, one of the finest people ever to hold that job, gave a brutal interview to The New Yorker, saying the administration’s foreign policy is abysmal. And former secretary of state Madeleine Albright came out with a scathing indictment of the president’s foreign policy, basically every bit as blistering as Scowcroft’s denunciation.

Albright said other countries no longer know what America stands for because of inconstant signals, from the prisoner abuse scandal to decisions to target some dictators but not others and to go to war on a whim.

The unhappy withdrawal of Harriet Miers for consideration for the Supreme Court, brought about by a savage conservative onslaught against her, happened because of the president’s arrogance. He simply couldn’t believe he would make a wrong decision. Initially, he did not want to let her withdraw despite mounting scorn for his choice and glaring math _ she would not have been confirmed.

Miers is a perfectly acceptable White House general counsel and lawyer. But she has no background in constitutional law and was a woeful Supreme Court nominee. She alienated more senators the harder she tried to woo them. The very fact of her nomination _ spreading the ugly taint of cronyism that exudes from the White House _ shows the disarray in the administration. Somebody should have told the president the nomination would not fly with his own conservative base and would damage both her and him.

The president’s problems keep mounting. The federal budget is out of control; energy prices are soaring; the fallout from a series of killer storms badly handled continues.

And, finally, the CIA leak investigation. Nobody may go to jail except a sorry reporter, Judith Miller, who was far too gullible in her desire to believe Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. But one fact must not be forgotten: Because of a desire to inflict political retribution against a critic (Joseph Wilson), this White House not only torpedoed the career of a CIA undercover agent, his wife, but unraveled a network of informers abroad built up over more than 20 years. This White House damaged national security, plain and simple.

How does the president get back his momentum, what his father used to call “big mo”?

He chooses another nominee to replace poor Sandra Day O’Connor, who can’t seem to get out the door, an able judge widely respected by everyone.

But he probably will pick the kind of conservative who will alienate liberals and cause a huge partisan fight.

He stops bucking international opinion and rethinks Iraq, coming up with a strategy to get U.S. soldiers out of the war as soon as possible without turning the country over to al Qaeda.

But he probably will stay the course.

He starts acting like a compassionate conservative, pays less attention to Vice President Cheney (who wants to permit torture by some U.S. operatives), gets new blood on his staff, seeks advice from beyond his inner circle, pays more attention to Congress, vetoes pork-barrel spending, does something about high energy bills and listens to America.

He probably will get on his mountain bike.

(Ann McFeatters is Washington Bureau chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Toledo Blade. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)