Political Capital with John Harwood

George Bush: Lame Duck Or Political Eagle?


Presidential power ebbs and flows and George W. Bush is holding very weak cards just now. But as he likes to point out, sometimes with more than flattering zeal, he is still the president and everyone also just kibitzes.

And he is using the powers he has to make a difference in his waning months at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His press conference earlier today, in which he vowed to sprint to his term's Jan 20, 2009 finish line, underscored both of his principal tools.

The first and less important is the bully pulpit. As president, Bush can still demand more news cameras and live television cameras than anybody else, no matter how big Hillary Clinton's lead in the polls becomes. That counts for something. He used it today to slap the similarly unpopular Congress around for dawdling while important business: from spending bills to anti-terrorist surveillance legislation to a response for the mortgage mess remains undone. Better, from his point of view, to do that than to let them slap him around unchallenged over his veto of the S-chip children's health care bill.

The reason I call the bully pulpit as less important is that Bush's credibility and persuasive power have largely drained away. He can rally the partisans, but few beyond that and even the ranks of Bush-loving partisans have diminished.

One case in point: the president today tried to justify his confrontational rhetoric toward Democrats in Congress by saying he had confronted Republicans over spending when they controlled Congress--and they listened. To all those economic conservatives who became embittered by the Bush-GOP spending record of 2001-2006, the president's statement will sound preposterous.

Bush Conference Highlights

But what can be decisively important is the second key presidential tool--the veto pen. Democrats have dragged out the veto override vote in an attempt to secure maximum political gain, but they aren't even close to having sufficiently GOP support to make their bill become law. So Bush can force them into some sort of compromise. This sort of brinkmanship is uncomfortable for some vulnerable Republicans who have backed the Democrats' S-chip bill, but Bush has long since demonstrated that their concerns aren't foremost in his mind.

The same goes for looming tax debates over private equity, capital gains and upper income tax reductions. Barring a much more severe collapse among Republicans than has occurred thus far, the president can stop any Democratic tax hikes he chooses to. The remarkable political fact of this year isn't how many Republicans have turned away from their president, but how many have not.

Bush's news conference suggested he has grown downright cocky over their state of affairs, or at least cockier than one would expect from a chief executive with a low-30s approval rating.

The best indicator of that was when one reporter asked Bush to grade his own performance on achieving compromise with Congressional Democrats. "We're finding common ground on Iraq," the president said.

Those words must feel like torture to Democratic Congressional leaders and the liberal constituency that put them in power in large part to end the Iraq war. But in this case, "finding common ground" is simply another way of describing a case in which the Commander-in-Chief has gotten his way despite political weakness.

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