- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

After months of declining job-approval poll results, George W. Bush seems to be turning around his presidency with the help of good news.

Less than five months before the midterm elections, several key events have joined to lift Mr. Bush’s approval polls to nearly 40 percent (up from 31 percent in May) and fewer Americans now think his decision to go into Iraq was a mistake. The Gallup Poll says 48 percent now believe the U.S. will win the war in Iraq, up from 39 percent in April. Among these linchpin developments:

The United States has killed top terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqwai, dealing al Qaeda forces in Iraq a devastating blow to their leadership and morale. The new Iraqi government, now led by tough-talking Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has filled all its Cabinet offices, including the critical defense and interior posts, and has begun a stepped-up crackdown on violence in Baghdad.

And in a dramatic act of support for the new government, Mr. Bush strode into its capital last week to tell the Iraqis, the terrorists and the world that no amount of suicide bombings can or will thwart the forces of democracy from building a free society in charge of its own destiny.

And there was good news for Bush domestically, too, that suggested the White House was fighting back against political foes. His party pulled out a victory in a California congressional election that all of the pundits said was poised to fall to the Democrats, who would then be more likely to take control of the House. In their dreams.

The special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation said White House political strategist Karl Rove will not be charged in the case, lifting a dark cloud over the West Wing and clearing the way for the president’s political mastermind to devote his full attention to winning the midterm elections.

And there was a sweeping housecleaning at the White House, too, by Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, who, in the space of a few months, has helped to engineer major changes in the president’s staff and in top administration posts.

A new powerhouse Treasury secretary, who has the confidence of Wall Street, will be confirmed. A new CIA chief and budget director have been given the job of fixing key trouble spots. Media master Tony Snow has brought a refreshing change to the job of press secretary, sharpening the White House message, making Mr. Bush more accessible and turning down the heat in the press briefing room.

Several other things are working in Mr. Bush’s favor, suggesting the political tides this year are unpredictable and could change dramatically before November.

For those concerned about the budget deficit, the good news is that it is falling, beaten down by strong tax revenue growth gushing out of a strong, full-employment economy.

It isn’t getting much attention in the news, but in the first eight months of this fiscal year, the deficit was running $227 billion. That’s still way too high, but it’s down 16.7 percent from this time last year when it was at $272.3 billion.

The reasons: Government revenues to date ($1.54 trillion and climbing) were up nearly 13 percent from a year ago. So much for the critics who say the Bush tax cuts would reduce tax revenues and worsen the deficit.

But the story in the Republican-run Congress, whose approval ratings have sunk into the low 20s, isn’t good and may be getting worse.

The voters are clearly unhappy with the perception that Congress has spent too much time battling and bickering, and precious little time getting anything done. That perception was worsened with the lobbying scandals, runaway pork-barrel spending and several events that broke last week.

First came the shocker from the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ auditing arm, that $1.4 billion in hurricane aid was looted by recipients who used the money to buy season football tickets, take vacations and even to pay for a divorce lawyer.

Then there was the vote in the House, 249-to-167, to block a recorded vote on an impending congressional pay raise. The $3,300 raise is on autopilot unless lawmakers vote to kill it. If the Senate doesn’t kill it, members of Congress will see their salaries rise to $168,500 a year ? much more than they’re worth. If Republican leaders are looking for another reason to anger the voters in an election year, this will do it.

With the prospects of nothing being done this year to fix the problem of illegal immigration, the Senate’s refusal to take up repeal of the death tax, and the House approving a transportation bill stuffed with nearly $1 billion in pork, how can they justify raising their pay? If anything, it should be cut.

If Republican leaders let this one pass, they deserve to be thrown out of office ? and many of them probably will be.

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

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