- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

After watching sports for four straight days, the leader of the free world returned home Monday to resume his day job.

Just for two days. President Bush heads to his Texas ranch on Thursday for two weeks of vacation and then will return to a shrinking agenda and a Republican Party leery of affiliating with a president whose approval rating has been below 30 percent for much of the past year.

As the nation’s collective attention span takes just brief, momentary breaks from its summer reading to glance at campaign ads about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, Mr. Bush increasingly is lost in the shuffle.

His promise to “sprint to the finish” is being complicated by the fact that there simply may not be much more race track to run on.

Even Mr. Bush’s most enthusiastic supporters have appeared recently to be underwhelmed by the president’s presence.

Mr. Bush spoke to about 600 electric company employees in Euclid, Ohio, at the end of July. The crowd was generous with its applause as Mr. Bush spoke about energy and the need for Congress to allow offshore drilling.

However, after the president spoke for about 20 minutes, he decided to take some questions from the audience.

“And now I’d like to answer some questions, if you have any,” Mr. Bush said, joking that he should be able to dodge any questions he didn’t want to answer.

“If you don’t have any questions, I can tell you a lot of interesting stories,” he said as the audience laughed.

There was a brief pause. Observers said a few audience members held up their hands, but Mr. Bush either ignored them or didn’t see them.

“OK, I’ll tell you a story,” he said, and launched into the often-told tale of how a rainbow appeared in the sky as he began a 2002 speech in Romania. The anecdote was completely unrelated to his energy speech, and Mr. Bush used the story to talk about freedom.

As the president was speaking, a set of global trade talks halfway around the world was collapsing after seven years in the making.

The Doha round’s disintegration in Geneva was the latest sign that protectionist winds are blowing, and it was a sharp blow to Bush administration hopes for momentum that could be carried into domestic trade talks.

Pending free-trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea and Panama are being held up by Democratic congressional leaders, most notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

The White House, and trade observers, had been cautiously optimistic in recent months about breaking the logjam, especially given several positive developments in Colombia.

If the president were able to push any of the trade pacts through in his final months, it would be a significant notch in his belt.

However, on the day that there were no questions for Mr. Bush in Ohio and global trade talks died, hope for a last signature achievement grew dim.

“The legislative window to do anything is very narrow, and some say it’s already closed,” said Jeffrey J. Schott, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“I’m not into score cards on legacy, but clearly, if these agreements were unfinished, it would mean that an important component of Bush’s trade policy has to be graded incomplete,” he said.

The president still has his defenders.

“Lame duck status is when you don’t exert influence anymore. That is hardly the case with the president, especially since we’re at war and he’s still quite an active commander in chief,” said Peter Wehner, former White House director of strategic initiatives.

In fact, the news from Iraq continues to be good, although Afghanistan looks increasingly worrisome.

Also, despite speculation that the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, wouldn’t offer Mr. Bush a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Mr. Bush will be onstage Sept. 1 for the first night of the gathering.

Mr. Bush has always decamped in August to his ranch in Crawford, but even there this year, he’ll be reminded that his time in power is near an end. Former aides Joe Hagin and Josh Deckard, who kept the president company while he cleared brush or went fishing on his ranch or played cards on Air Force One, have departed.

Although Mr. Bush will receive briefings on world events, meet with members of his Cabinet and make a trip or two to raise money for Republican candidates while on vacation, he most likely will be overshadowed by the run-up to the two political conventions.

In an apparent recognition of sorts that he is no longer the center of attention, Mr. Bush did not hurry back from the Summer Olympics in Beijing, even when war erupted between Russia and Georgia, a former Soviet bloc territory.

He and first lady Laura Bush attended the opening ceremonies, but that was just the beginning. The president hobnobbed with women’s beach volleyball players in bikinis, watched the men’s basketball team defeat Yao Ming’s Chinese squad, saw U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps win a gold medal and saw the U.S. baseball and softball teams practice.

“Bush would not stay four days if he was not on his way out,” said John C. Fortier, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The president did hold meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other top government officials and also consulted with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin got into an animated discussion during the opening ceremony, when Mr. Bush said he confronted the Russian leader about his country’s aggression in Georgia.

Mr. Bush also made some waves about religious and political freedoms. He spoke out on the issue while stopping in Bangkok on the way to China and then once more on Friday morning in Beijing. He also worshipped at a church that trains pastors of underground Christian churches.

However, the church he attended was state-sanctioned.

All in all, within the global mass media pond that is the modern-day Olympics, the president’s presence and his gestures on human rights were little more than ripples.

“I don’t think anyone was paying that much attention,” said former White House press staffer Blain Rethmeier. “I think the focus was on the athletes.”

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