Bush faces a lonely road - These days even some Republicans are questioning his course
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
By Mark Silva
July 29, 2007
WASHINGTON — President Bush risks becoming increasingly isolated as he approaches his final year in the White House, experts say, as close advisers drift away, many in his own party turn against him, his policies meet strong resistance and even formerly ardent party supporters question his path.
The public has largely rejected the Iraq war, the central project of Bush's presidency, and Democrats are attacking the president with a new aggressiveness as his popularity reaches historic lows. More dramatically, Bush faces growing defections from his party, including the conservative wing that has previously supported him enthusiastically. And several of his closest aides—such as Chief of Staff Andrew Card and counselor to the president Dan Bartlett—are no longer in the administration, leaving Bush with fewer friends whose judgment he is willing to rely on.
Meanwhile, the Republican presidential candidates are carefully distancing themselves from Bush in certain key areas. Even U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bush's strongest defender on Iraq, is offsetting that support with scorching commentary on the administration's conduct of the war.
For all his travails, Bush's isolation does not approach that of President Richard Nixon, who reportedly spoke to portraits in the White House as Watergate closed in on him. And even some Democrats say that though Bush has suffered an erosion of support, he still has been able to stare down Congress, even on Iraq.
But it is important for a chief executive to have multiple lines of support and advice, presidential scholars and other experts say.
"Under any circumstances, the greatest danger that faces any president is isolation," said Leon Panetta, who was chief of staff for President Bill Clinton. "If you look at the great presidents in our history, they always kept their fingers on the pulse of where the people were."
Bush's political adversaries have always accused him of taking advice only from an insular circle of trusted aides and refusing to listen to opposing views. But these days, the circle has grown even smaller, with several former Bush aides and officials openly criticizing the president and his team.
Matthew Dowd, Bush's chief campaign strategist in 2004, spoke in an agonized New York Times interview earlier this year of his loss of faith in Bush, whom he described as "secluded and bubbled in." More recently, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona told Congress that the Bush administration repeatedly interfered with his reports for political reasons.
In Congress, erstwhile allies are criticizing the administration with a new vigor. Bush's refusal to let White House officials testify on the firing of federal prosecutors has led to a legal standoff, angering such Republicans as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Other Republicans openly call for the resignation of Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales. And Bush's push for immigration reform sparked vilification and rage from many of the conservatives who had formed the bedrock of his support.
But it is the Iraq war, opposed by a great majority of Americans, that has driven Bush's public approval to the lowest point of his presidency. His job approval, averaging 31.8 percent during the past three months in the Gallup Poll, ranks among the lowest of any president measured since 1945.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, detects "a sense of fatalism" at the White House.
"I think President Bush has reached a point where he perceives he doesn't have options other than what he is doing—a course has been put in place and you have to see the course through," Jamieson said. "If people get locked down psychologically, it makes it possible for them to think that they are doing something heroic, even in the face of public criticism."
In Bush's eyes, and those of his staunchest supporters, the unwavering prosecution of the Iraq war is a measure of the resolve of a commander in chief who places national security ahead of his political standing.
"I guess I'm like any other political figure; everybody wants to be loved," Bush said at a recent news conference. "Sometimes the decisions you make, and the consequences, don't enable you to be loved. ... If you ever come down and visit the old, tired me down there in Crawford, I will be able to say I looked in the mirror and made decisions based upon principle, not based upon politics."
Even some Democrats argue that Bush should not be called isolated as long as opponents of the war in Congress cannot muster enough votes to override a veto.
"Does he have an erosion problem? Yes, he does," said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. But "I think the word 'isolated' at this time is not appropriate. He is not isolated."
That could change in September, when some Republicans have said they will re-evaluate their support for the Iraq war.
While many Republicans remain committed to the president and his Iraq policy, "war fatigue" is growing significantly.
"You do see that Republicans themselves are frustrated with Bush, even if they don't say so directly," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan polling institute in Washington.
That unrest has surfaced in Congress, where a growing number of GOP senators stand ready to support Democratic demands for a timeline for withdrawal. And short of timelines, two of the most influential Senate Republicans, John Warner of Virginia and Richard Lugar of Indiana, are pressing for legislation to compel the president to start making his own withdrawal plans.
Some Republicans say that even if Bush is increasingly finding himself in the minority on the war, he is doing so consciously.
"I'm convinced that the president is not isolated in terms of not knowing what the public sentiment is," said Neil Newhouse, a Virginia-based GOP pollster. "I think he knows very clearly where the public sentiment is, and he is very clearly standing up for what he believes in, in the face of negative public opinion."
Bush, for his part, says he is willing to let history judge him. "I'll be dead before, long gone, before people fully are able to capture the essence of, the full essence of a presidency," Bush said recently.