- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2005

What should President Bush do about his declining poll numbers and when should he do it?

The numbers are not encouraging. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll Oct. 3-5 of 1,000 adults nationwide found just 28 percent think the country is moving in the right direction. Two thirds, 66 percent, think it’s on the wrong track. Just 40 percent think the president is handling the economy well. The president’s handling of the economy is disapproved by 58 percent. Other polls are slightly better.

Mr. Bush’s “overall” approval rating in this poll was just 39 percent. 58 percent disapproved of the job the president is doing.

The one area in which Mr. Bush might take heart is his handling of foreign-policy issues and the war on terrorism. His October approval rating increased to 46 percent, 3 percent higher than in September. His disapproval rating dropped from 55 percent in September to 52 percent this month.

The president is in danger of losing his base, which wanted more than a Republican president. It believed it had twice elected a conservative president.

I recall a conversation I had with Mr. Bush during the 2000 campaign. Following an interview on his campaign plane, then-Gov. Bush, aide Karen Hughes and I climbed into a van at the Des Moines airport. As we chatted on the way to a campaign stop, I offered some unsolicited advice: “Every president goes into a bubble. If you win, try to break out of it as often as you can.” My point was many people are drawn to power less to advance certain policies than for ego satisfaction and future job prospects. He needed contrarians on his staff and he should meet with “average” people as often as possible.

Staffers with convictions seem unable to express differences with the president, for fear it might jeopardize their access or even their jobs. Instead, they tell him things that make him feel good. Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers has called him the most brilliant man she has ever known.

Disgraced TV evangelist Jim Bakker told me he started going wrong when he surrounded himself with people who said what he wanted to hear. Mr. Bakker’s “bubble” landed him in prison. President Bush’s bubble contributes to declining poll numbers.

What should he do? First, he should replace those on his staff who seem to care more about him than they do about policy. If the policies are right and benefit the people, the approval and admiration will follow. But “loyalty tests” and “my president, right or wrong” is not policy. It is hero-worship and it can only blind people to policy objectives.

Nothing would fire up the country more (short of winning the war in Iraq and finding Osama bin Laden) than a crusade to liberate us from the grip of oil-producing nations that hate us and use our money to spread terrorism.

Surely we have the technology to find alternative energy sources. The president should provide the leadership. It isn’t only about conservation; it’s about a new path toward energy independence. If President Kennedy could put astronauts on the moon in less than a decade, President Bush could at least begin the process of freeing us from depending on Saudi and other foreign oil. His brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has reversed himself and now favors offshore drilling near the Florida coast. That may help ease our dependence on foreign oil in the short term, but as Kennedy said, “we can do better.”

Then President Bush should highlight the waste, fraud and abuse a Republican Congress is helping to promote. Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, has discovered $10 million went to the Alaska Fisheries Marketing Board. That board gave $500,000 of the money to Alaska Airlines to paint a large king salmon on one of its passenger planes.

There are thousands of examples of government waste and unnecessary spending. This includes out-of-control so-called “entitlement” spending. The president should rally the public to end it. He has yet to veto a single spending bill.

That’s for starters, but the president had better try to shake things up and quickly, or he risks a troubled, if not failed, second term.

Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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