George W. Bush seems beset on all fronts. His job rating dipped to new lows after his torpid response to Hurricane Katrina. Casualties continue in Iraq; some Democrats call for withdrawal now or by a date certain. Social Security changes he campaigned for earlier this year seem unlikely to be enacted. Proposals to make tax cuts permanent are stalled in Congress; and stalled proposals sometimes never come forward.
The president’s commission on tax reform is soon to report — but no one seems much interested, and the last major tax reform took a full two years to work its way through Congress. Any proposals now would have, at best, 14 months.
Moreover, the Republican base, which has given Mr. Bush stronger support than it gave Ronald Reagan, is now seething with discontent. Spending is too high, fiscal conservatives say. They add authorizing $100 billion and up for rebuilding New Orleans is way out of line. Mr. Bush’s proposals to regularize the status of currently illegal immigrants are decried on talk radio and at town meetings.
The right blogosphere is furious about Mr. Bush’s naming his counsel, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court. They are itching for a fight on principle, convinced they could win in a Republican Senate. By not naming a nominee with bedrock conservative credentials, Mr. Bush in their view is flinching from a battle.
But this is a president who responds to challenges with renewed bursts of vigor. In public appearances last week, Mr. Bush came out swinging in defense of his Iraq policy and in support of Miss Miers. The Bush White House has not quite given up on Social Security, and top aides believe House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas still wants to advance a version of individual investment accounts. Mr. Bush and the Republican Congress (with some Democratic help) have ground out tax cuts in a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust manner, and may well continue the strategy once the Katrina issues have been settled. The Republican House has passed all 11 large appropriations bills for next fiscal year. There is a chance for more cuts when conference committees meet.
Two days after his press conference, Mr. Bush was eloquent and more specific than before on Iraq in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy. He identified our adversaries not, as he has in the past, as generic terrorists, but as “evil Islamic radicalism,” “militant Jihadism” and “Islamo-fascism.” He described the campaigns in which American forces, sometimes leading and sometimes aiding Iraqis, are clearing out Iraqi cities on the roads to Syria and installing Iraqi units to prevent the enemy from returning. He described how more than 80 Iraqi battalions now are fighting alongside us, up from not much more than zero in July 2004.
Recently returned Lt. Gen. David Petraeus provides additional detail: More than 36 Iraqi battalions are capable of fighting “in the lead,” and another 80 of “fighting alongside” U.S. forces.
Effective war leaders like Franklin Roosevelt have used a narrative framework to tell citizens about progress made and work done to assure future progress. Mr. Bush did a better job of that last week than he has in some time. He needs to continue doing it to counter mainstream media focuses mostly on casualty counts, and to make clear the consequences of withdrawal or failure: “Would the United States and other free nations be more safe, or less safe, with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people and its resources?”
On domestic policy, Mr. Bush has pursued the plans he set out in his 2000 campaign, some of which seem blocked, temporarily or permanently. His gas tank is running low. Of course, the Democrats have few specific proposals, aside from repealing the Bush tax cuts: They’ve been running on empty since Bill Clinton left office.
That invites the public to say a pox on both parties. But it also provides an opening for Mr. Bush to lay out a more robust agenda — maybe in his State of the Union address in January — one geared to years ahead, instead of his 2000 priorities.
Mr. Bush seems beset now, but he has a chance to rebound and confound his vitriolic critics once again.
Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.