Bush blew it

    Can George W. Bush get his groove back?

    Much has been made in recent days of the president’s plummeting job-approval
    ratings, especially among conservative Republicans. He lost most Democrats long

    Barring another terrorist attack, which would instantly if only temporarily
    rally the country, are there ways for the president to climb out of the slough
    of only 31 percent popularity?

    Yes, but they are not likely to happen.

    Bush would have to make some dramatic, unexpected changes. Since he does not
    believe he’s doing anything wrong, he’s not likely to swerve from the way he’s
    been governing.

    Why are Americans so disillusioned with the White House?

    Pollsters say the job-approval rating is a will-o’-the-wisp way to judge
    popular sentiment and isn’t all that reliable. Popularity goes up, it comes
    down, sometimes in just one news cycle. The more valued tool, they argue, is the
    question of whether Americans think the country is on the “right track” or the
    “wrong track.”

    And there the news is not at all good for the administration. Almost seven
    out of 10 don’t like the direction of the country.

    Americans think the war in Iraq has been handled disastrously because of
    stubbornness, oversimplification and a desire for war with Saddam Hussein no
    matter what.

    Americans think high gas prices could have been prevented.

    Americans think there’s a “culture of corruption,” to use the Democratic
    phrase. They blame both parties, but it hurts Republicans more right now because
    they’re in power.

    Americans think immigration is a crisis. Rightly or wrongly, they think the
    administration has faltered on securing the borders and developing a tough,
    workable policy on who comes in and who stays.

    Americans think the nation’s stature around the world has fallen in the
    aftermath of 9/11, and that now there’s a perception among millions of Muslims
    that the country is at war with them.

    Americans think that Bush’s determination to make the Middle East a bastion
    of democracy (of which they wholeheartedly approve) is not seen around the world
    as noble but as self-serving because the administration failed to sell it

    Despite the administration’s passionate insistence that the economy is
    growing and doing well, with a solid job-creation rate, millions of Americans
    don’t FEEL that it is. There’s a lurking fear that their personal economic story
    is akin to a house of cards only a paycheck away from tumbling down.

    Bush could begin to change perceptions if Americans saw a cessation of the
    growth of violence in Iraq, saw serious progress by Iraqis in taking control of
    their own security, and had assurances we won’t become mired in Iraq, where we
    are increasingly hated.

    If Bush stopped talking in platitudes about energy (simply opening up
    pristine areas for oil and gas exploration and development will not solve the
    problem) and put long-term solutions in place (that’s another column), Americans
    would cut him some slack.

    If Bush spoke out against influence peddling, surrounded himself with new
    blood and started listening to some outside expertise, he might regain the
    people’s faith that he knows what he is doing.

    Bush’s personnel decisions are beginning to look not just as loyalty picks,
    but as if they were a result of throwing darts. He chose Porter Goss to revamp
    the CIA, and now the CIA is in worse shape than ever. The nation’s entire
    intelligence apparatus seems to be a disaster area. The turf battles are
    nightmarishly worse than ever.

    Once Bush had an approval rating of 91 percent. Now people are asking: Can
    this man get anything right?

    Yes, there’s a certain fickleness to how our regard for leaders ebbs and
    flows. And the history of second terms is that they nearly always end poorly.

    But the truth is, Americans are bored with Bush and scared that he’s
    incompetent in a dangerous age when America’s reputation and ideals are waning.
    Many Republicans, astounded at the mounting debt he is piling up for future
    generations and the little it has bought (think tax relief for the very rich),
    fear he’s lost his conservative moorings.

    So far Bush’s answer to his popularity woes is to wage a hard fight for the
    November elections. Take note _ this will be a nasty battle, which is why the
    White House right now is not about policy, or changes in direction, but
    hard-knuckled politics. Bush is intent on keeping GOP control of both the House
    and the Senate, which would go a long way toward bolstering his base.

    Come January, however, it’s all about 2008. Unless Bush gets into his groove
    and regains public confidence, he will become increasingly irrelevant.

    (Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and
    national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)