George W. Bush hopes to find the path to recovery from a week of bad news that staggered his presidency in a nuts-and-bolts focus on governing.
The week that was: conservatives in the president’s own party hounded him into withdrawing Harriet Miers’ Supreme Court nomination; the U.S. death toll in Iraq surpassed 2,000; and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff was indicted by a federal grand jury.
The aide, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, is accused of lying about his role in blowing the CIA cover of an Iraq war critic’s wife. The charges grew out of an investigation that was the product of the fierce debate two years ago over Bush’s contention that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Rove's fate still in question
Cheney and Libby were two of the administration’s leading lobbyists for the U.S.-led invasion, and the indictment could remind Americans increasingly unhappy with the war that the president’s primary justification for it turned out to be false. A Libby trial could see the famously secretive vice president called as a witness and asked to answer embarrassing questions.
Though top presidential adviser Karl Rove was spared for now, the future of one of Bush’s most powerful advisers also remained in jeopardy.
Already, Bush was struggling with his lowest-ever approval ratings, dragged down by high gas prices and a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina along with the public’s growing unrest over Iraq.
Miers’ nomination was only the most recent example of Republicans’ willingness to distance themselves from the president. Bush’s signature domestic priority for the year, a Social Security overhaul, was shelved after an aggressive push by the president yielded little support for action even among Republicans. Just this month, California’s GOP governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, skipped a Bush fundraiser in Los Angeles and Jerry Kilgore, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, stayed away from a presidential speech in Norfolk on Friday.
‘Conscience and conviction’
Some are calling for bold strokes — a broad new agenda, a purging of the president’s tired and perhaps overly insular and loyal staff — to jolt the White House past its troubles.
A former White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official still provides regular advice, said Bush needs “moves of conscience and conviction” that evoke the leadership abilities that helped get him re-elected.
Some Republicans inside and outside the White House were angered by Bush’s handling of Libby’s exit. They viewed it as a missed opportunity to restore badly needed credibility because the president neither condemned the aide’s actions nor acknowledged that White House spokesman Scott McClellan had said categorically in 2003 that Libby was not involved in the leak.
Bush and his aides considered the political benefits of such statements, according to a senior administration official, who spoke confidentially so as to not be seen discussing internal deliberations. But the idea was rejected out of concern the president’s words could influence the legal process. Bush instead merely called the charges “serious” and urged against a rush to judgment. He and Cheney both praised Libby for his public service.
Democrats, though, indicated they will not let people forget that Bush campaigned in 2000 on a promise to “restore honor and dignity” to a White House sullied by Clinton-era scandals.
“President Bush faces a serious test of leadership,” said Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Will he keep his pledge to hold his administration to high ethical standards and give the American people what they deserve, and will he answer to the American people for these serious missteps?”
At the White House, the short-term strategy is little changed by the recent events.
Bush will focus for the remainder of the year on pushing Congress to fund Katrina recovery while reigning in nonmilitary spending, renewing the Patriot Act, and making preparations for a possible bird flu or other pandemic. The president plans to highlight political progress in Iraq and U.S. economic growth in an effort to convince a skeptical public that things are better than they seem on both fronts, officials said.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said it was an “almost a back-to-basics type of approach to governing” that is designed to show people that the president is taking concrete action on things that matter to their lives.
“I got a job to do and so do the people who work in the White House,” Bush said in reaction to Libby’s indictment.
Grover Norquist, the president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform who is close to the White House, said Bush is on the right track. “You don’t need any Hail Mary passes at this point,” he said.
All agree that Bush must make a quick and sound selection for the Supreme Court now that Miers no longer is in line to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. With an announcement expected soon, White House officials and their allies have great hopes it will steal space from the bad news, heal the rift with conservatives that the Miers’ nomination caused and regain momentum for Bush.
Norquist said that will happen if Bush names someone with a clear record of conservative credentials. “We will get a completely unified right,” Norquist said. “Bygones are bygones.”
Aides also hope Bush will benefit from his schedule. Foreign policy will dominate much of Bush’s attention as he spends much of November traveling to South America and Asia.
Bush dislikes reacting to the kind of advice from punditry that has been so plentiful in recent weeks. So more comprehensive changes at the White House, whether a staff shake-up or bold new ideas, probably will wait. Aides are looking to Bush’s State of the Union address early next year as the vehicle to unveil policy proposals.
At the same time, the president intends to return as planned in the new year to priorities such as overhauling Social Security, simplifying the tax laws and addressing immigration.
Meantime, a replacement must be found for Libby, the Cheney alter-ego and influential White House player whose departure leaves a huge gap.
Among those discussed as top contenders are Cheney’s counsel, David Addington; the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Eric Edelman; and Dean McGrath, Cheney’s deputy chief of staff.