- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2005

What a difference a few weeks can make in the life of a presidency.

Last week, President Bush faced rebellion in his party over Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, the threat that his chief strategist and policy adviser would be indicted in the CIA leak investigation, criticism that the White House had lost its grip on managing the country and forecasts on all sides that his presidency was coming apart at the seams.

That seems to dissolve like a bad dream as Mr. Bush seems to find his footing, regain party unity and get some big breaks on the economy, gas prices and the special counsel’s leak probe.

Consider these developments:

• The Supreme Court: The president put the Miers debacle behind him, regrouped and swiftly named veteran Appeals Court Judge Samuel Alito, a soft-spoken, intellectual, conservative jurist who like, Chief Justice John Roberts, has argued many cases before the high court and knows constitutional law like the back of his hand.

The nomination has reunited and enthused Mr. Bush’s political base, put some major constitutional issues on the front burner of political debate, and plays to Mr. Bush’s strengths as a right-of-center chief executive who is back on offense and controlling the agenda.

Liberal Democrats think they have a juicy target in Judge Alito on abortion, which he personally opposes. But the early evidence is he will not give them that opportunity at his upcoming hearings. Like Justice Roberts, he will argue that judicial precedent deserves great respect and should be overturned only under extraordinary situations.

Judge Alito spent an hour Monday with Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, who later told reporters the judge said he would be reluctant to overturn long-held and frequently reaffirmed rulings like Roe v. Wade. “I think he went further than [Roberts] went,” saying issues that have been reaffirmed many times have “weight,” Mr. Specter said.

This nominee will handle the Democrats with ease, judicial authority and political skill and I predict he will be confirmed.

• The economy: While it’s been running on all cylinders, it has been plagued by hurricane-induced anxieties and volatility in the stock market. But last week the Commerce Department reported the nation’s gross domestic product, the measure of everything we produce and sell, shot up by a powerful 3.8 percent in the third quarter — showing the world’s largest economy is still robustly healthy.

Reinforcing the GDP’s higher-than-expected rise were Federal Reserve Board reports that the economy had weathered both Hurricane Katrina and Rita with remarkable resiliency and was in decent shape in most regions. So much for all those hyperbolic forecasts of economic decline as a result of the Gulf storms.

Add to all this Mr. Bush’s nomination of Ben Bernanke to succeed Alan Greenspan as Fed chairman, an economic home run if ever there was one, and it is clear future Fed policy will be based on tame inflation, a stable dollar and steady growth. Mr. Bush’s choice won a big vote of confidence from financial markets, both here and abroad, and we may be in the midst of a fourth-quarter bull rally that will fatten 401(k) retirement funds, which should help lift Mr. Bush’s job approval polls.

• Gasoline prices: The news media have largely played down this story, but gas prices have been plunging — from $3 or more per gallon several weeks ago to as low as $2.19 a gallon in some areas of the country.

The reasons: Demand is down as motorists cut back on gas purchases; oil inventories are up, because the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, at the administration’s urging, is pumping more oil and shut-down Gulf-state oil platforms and refineries are resuming operations sooner than expected.

The prospect of gas prices falling to $2 a gallon by early next year, just as the 2006 off-year congressional campaigns begin, will likely boost Mr. Bush’s polls on the economy and help Republicans maintain their majority in Congress.

• The CIA leak case: The worst didn’t happen. All those predictions that White House chief political strategist Karl Rove would be indicted, maybe even Vice President Dick Cheney, were wrong. After an exhaustive two-year probe, special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald could not bring charges that anyone broke the Agent Identities Protection Act.

Mr. Fitzgerald’s case was limited to the charge that a top Cheney aide lied to the FBI about his recollections of what he told several journalists and what they told him. Moreover, while the probe remains open during the trial proceeding, Mr. Fitzgerald said the investigation was all but over. Now the story gets lost in the fog of courtroom motions and plea-bargaining.

This is not to say Mr. Bush doesn’t face a lot of problems, with Iraq the largest and most dangerous. But on several of the toughest and most strategic battlegrounds, he has overcome and, yes, dodged some serious political challenges, learned from his mistakes, regained his confidence and seems poised to win many more battles.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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