President Bush has lost the greatest commodity a president can possess: The public’s trust.
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Scattered with Katrina’s winds and buried in the bloody battlefields of Iraq, his credibility is likely gone forever, which means there will be no political comeback for Bush. His die is cast.
As he stood before the nation and Congress on Tuesday, pleading for the benefit of the doubt in Iraq, polls showed that less than a third of Americans approved of his job performance. Two-thirds said his political problems are long-term. Solid majorities called their president untrustworthy, stubborn and out of touch with their problems.
The State of the Union address, a ritual tailor-made for presidential recoveries, was nearly eclipsed by events outside Bush’s control:
- Three days before the address, Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton jumped into a fast-budding 2008 presidential race that threatens to overshadow Bush’s agenda and whet the public’s appetite for change at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
- Also on Saturday, a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter crashed in northeast of Baghdad, killing all 12 service members on board.
- Hours before the address, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff went on trial for perjury. The case is a public reminder of a White House deception: Bush’s press secretary insisted in 2003 that no senior White House officials were involved in the leak of a CIA officer’s name. In fact, at least two were involved.
- Hours after the address, the Democratic-led Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a no-confidence vote on his troop escalation strategy. Some fellow Republicans abandoned him.
“What do you believe? What are you willing to support? Why were you elected?” asked Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., as he implored colleagues to stand up to the White House after four years of acquiescence. “If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes. This is a tough business.”
Indeed, it is. Just two years ago, Bush was awash in inaugural glow after a triumphant re-election. In two national campaigns, Bush had forged a bond with Americans, many of whom disagreed with him on policy grounds but felt that he would always do what he thought was right – and shoot straight about it.
Many American started having second thoughts in the spring of 2005, when the war in Iraq grew bloodier than they were told to expect – and the president insisted that things were fine. Anti-war sentiments gained steam in the summer, when the mother of a slain soldier held a vigil outside Bush’s ranch in Texas. The president refused to visit with Cindy Sheehan during her Texas vigil, which struck many voters as not only insensitive to a grieving mother but a repudiation of their own doubts about the war.
Then came Katrina, the Gulf Coast hurricane in the late summer of 2005 that exposed government incompetence and lies. Even when TV pictures told a different story, Bush and his advisers tried to put a sunny spin on recovery efforts. It wasn’t the malfeasance that hurt Bush the most (the public expects a certain amount of incompetence from government). It was the misinformation.
“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job,” he famously told Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown. The public knew that wasn’t the truth.
Bush lost the benefit of the doubt after Katrina. He couldn’t explain away the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the shifting rationales for war or the unmet expectations on the battlefield – even though each event on its own had plausible explanations.
In the spring of 1995, President Clinton faced a political crisis of his own when White House polling revealed that only 35 percent of the public was willing to consider voting for him in 1996. Voters had just ended 40 years of Democratic control in Congress, a repudiation of Clinton’s policies that made the 1994 midterms unrivaled in significance until last November’s vote against Bush’s Republican Party.
In one memorable news conference, Clinton ventured into a debate about his relevancy. It seems silly now because, of course, he was relevant. The nation’s chief executive and commander in chief is always relevant. The question the public had about him in 1995 was – Is he effective? Is he up to the job?
Clinton answered those questions and regained the public’s confidence with his response to circumstances outside his control (the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing) and events of his own making (the 1995 government shutdown). Clinton also had the benefit of another campaign in 1996 to redeem himself. Bush has run his final race.
Bush, like Clinton, never lost his relevancy, but that is little solace when the core value of his presidency has always been credibility. People trusted Bush to do what was right, even when they disagreed with him on policy. That bond has been broken. Nothing could be more damaging.
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