Saturday, December 30, 2006

Bush Administration's Last Two Years Reflect Classic Lame Duck Presidency

President Bush faces vastly diminished powers over the next two years, according to this USA Today story. The administration is facing the dilemmas of any lame-duck presidency in the last throes of its tenure:

Embattled by the Iraq war, barred from seeking another term in office and facing an emboldened, Democratic-controlled Congress, President Bush fits the textbook definition: a lame duck.

His final two years in the Oval Office seem destined to be dramatically different and more difficult than his first six. Republicans in Congress, once loyal, have begun to fracture. Democrats in Congress, once powerless, vow to use their new authority to investigate the administration, challenge its policies and chart their own course.

Nevertheless, the president, calculating how to maneuver during his remaining time in office, insists he can score achievements — and says he plans to try. "Look, I came to do big things, and we're still going to try to do big things," Bush told a private gathering of Republicans after November's election setbacks, according to GOP strategist Charlie Black, who was there. "Regardless of my popularity and the Congress, I'm going to try to do big things."

Those "big things" include reauthorizing his signature No Child Left Behind law, winning passage of immigration legislation that provides a path to legal status for undocumented workers and taking steps toward adding individual investment accounts to Social Security. White House officials are exploring the prospects for limiting congressional "earmarks" in the budget process and encouraging new and expanded sources of energy.

But the war overshadows it all.

The conflict in Iraq is costing an estimated $8 billion a month, straining the Army and Marine Corps and sapping Bush's job-approval rating, now at 38% in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. A turnaround in the security and political situation there could invigorate his presidency, but growing violence and chaos might well make it hard for him to focus on anything else.

What Bush will propose in the State of the Union address next month and how he'll pursue those priorities will depend in part on how conciliatory Democrats are, White House officials say. They're preparing "soft" and "hard" approaches — from cooperation to confrontation — after studying how other presidents dealt with opposition Congresses.

"With the majority comes responsibility," White House strategist Karl Rove said in an interview. "In our system, the president governs. The president is the chief executive, and the Congress has the responsibility to legislate. But the Congress cannot legislate without the concurrence of the president, and vice versa. If Congress legislates and it does not have the concurrence of the president, it's called a veto."

The ferocity of the war in Iraq and its impact on U.S. relations around the globe limit Bush's ability to use a strategy other second-termers have employed during their final two years in office: Turn to foreign policy — where a president's powers remain largely unfettered — and change the subject from whatever is bedeviling your presidency.

"Iraq is still there; it's always there," says Frank Donatelli, a Republican consultant and former White House political director for Ronald Reagan. "Unless it starts getting better, it's like a 10-pound weight" on the president.

When presidents get to the final two years of their second term, their administrations often are running out of gas and into trouble.

The proposals that drove their first elections generally have either been enacted (such as Reagan's defense buildup and tax cuts) or run aground (such as Bill Clinton's health-care overhaul). Many of the advisers who helped them get to the Oval Office have moved on, and members of Congress in their party usually lose big in the election midway through the second term. The administration has had enough time in power for malfeasance to take place — and be uncovered.
The piece notes that Bush is undeterred, and remains confident that he can get "big things" done. The administration is likely to work on Social Security reform, energy policy, education, and immigration. Probably his most lasting victory could come in reforming Social Security, which is facing a funding crisis that threatens the solvency of the entitlement system. Unfortunately, Democrats may require that Bush jettison his call for private accounts in order to reach a deal. Such a compromise would betray the administration's goal of creating an "Ownership Society," in which every American gains greater individual sufficiency through homeownership and greater participation in the market.

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