Bush's Second Term Blues

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Mr. Zacher is the author of Trial and Triumph – Presidential Power in the Second Term.

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Is George Bush becoming a lame duck? Is the curse of the second term, that plagued all but six of nineteen presidents elected to a second term, about to settle upon the president? The question has been raised over the past month or so as his ratings have been sinking and the public indicating dissatisfaction with the direction the country is taking.

Rising gas prices and interest rates coupled with the swelling deficit due to the cost of Katrina and Rita have moved the economy into the forefront of public concerns. The Iraq war continues to prey on the minds of the electorate as the insurgency grows while that country has yet to give significant evidence that democracy will prevail . The failure of Bush to respond quickly to Katrina and the apparent incompetence of FEMA in the debacle cast doubts on his leadership strengths. And this quality was the essence of the allegiance given him in his high poll ratings. His handling of the Rita Hurricane has restored much of his reputation in this regard, however. Grand jury investigations of Karl Rove and others in the administration cause eyebrows to be raised but appear not to be paramount in the minds of the electorate at this juncture..

The administration’s agenda for his second term had included continuing the fight in Iraq, privatization of Social Security, retention of his tax cuts, a reduction of or elimination of the estate tax and possibly a revision of the tax code. An unspoken objective was to change the character of the courts especially the Supreme Court so these would be more socially conservative.

An energy bill was passed and so was the Central American Free Trade Bill. These were significant achievements, won with the application of considerable political skill by the president. Now, however, the privatization of Social Security has been scuttled and the rising deficit places the repeal of the estate tax and the retention of the tax cuts in limbo and certainly in question. .

The success of a president in his second term rests on three things. First is the result of the age old struggle between the chief executive and Congress as to which of the two branches of government becomes the dominant force in the second term. One might expand the definition of this struggle as being one in which the president must preserves his political base. Secondly the president must survive the management of unexpected events. Finally, the character and temperament of a president must avoid a spirit of invincibility and hubris.

The appointment of John G. Roberts to the Supreme Court was a shrewd maneuver which may well have moved Bush toward his objective of having a social conservative Court. Roberts’s credentials were so impeccable that a showdown fight in the Senate over the appointment was avoided. The battle with Congress was not waged. Now comes the challenge of winning the appointment of Harriet E. Miers to replace Sandra Day O’Connor. Bush had successfully finessed his first appointment to the Court and he is now attempting a second one. With his poll ratings slipping and the economy and the war in Iraq testing his leadership, he most certainly wants to avoid a Senate battle that would divert legislative attention from what he can save of his second term agenda. When Bush says trust me on this appointment, one should be rather certain that he believes he will have delivered a guaranteed socially conservative Court, fulfilling his unspoken agenda commitment to the this religious base.

The intense opposition to Miers from the old establishment conservatives is an unexpected challenge to the administration. It seems to have all of the qualities of that age old struggle between the legislative and executive branch, only in this case it is a force outside and possibly inside the Congress that intends to take control. Are the old line conservatives saying they want the drag out battle with the Democrats over the person they would choose to be nominated to the Court, someone who has come out against Roe v. Wade? This is what the president wants to avoid, and one suspects that he believes he is achieving the goal sought by these conservatives while avoiding a fight in the Senate. It may be too late for that now. The cat may be sufficiently out of the bag for the Democrats to believe they need not oppose Miers on the issue of Roe.

Is it possible that the old line conservatives took the issue of the appointment of Miers to challenge Bush by venting their general dissatisfaction with him over his dedication to the neo-conservative philosphy? Many of them questioned the invasion of Iraq, but have tended to state their position in muted tones. The opposition to Miers may be a reflection of this dispute with the president which they cannot so openly pursue.

So what of the challenge of second term for Bush? He obviously wants to avoid a Senate fight over his selection to the Supreme Court. His legislative agenda is on hold, pending the appointment to the Court. As the year draws to a close, the economy and the war will take center stage for the administration and the Congress. Members there are already keeping their eye on the 2006 election. Redistricting will help preserve the Republican control of Congress, and the incumbent has the advantage in these elections. Further, the Democrats appear to lack the leadership to give that party a theme that might swing votes to them. If Bush’s standing in the polls continues to ebb, Congress will be less inclined to support his legislative initiatives.

At the moment one should not bet against Bush in the battle between him and the Congress and the old line conservatives. He generally appears ready to manage unexpected events. He may be endowed with a spirit of invincibility, but he tends to conceal this and in fact uses this in the pursuit of his agenda. One thing is certain, he does not act as though he is a lame duck. He responds to the opposition of members of his own party with self confidence and determination--as did Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt to the opposition of members of their own party.

If the Republicans retain control of Congress and the economy hold steady, even with high energy costs, the war in Iraq will determine the success of his second term and of his entire presidency. His gamble in taking the country into war to remove Sadam Hussean and instill democracy in the Middle East was as daring and dangerous a step as any taken by a president in the history of the nation. It seems, however, that no matter how the war impacts his place in history, he will most likely be remembered as the president who moved the Supreme Court toward social conservatism.

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    Frank Halsey - 10/22/2005

    Most 2nd term presidents are lame ducks but the real blues for Bush are coming from his first term.

    The charges, whether valid or not, are intentional manipulation or misrepresentation of intelligence to get Congress to authorize, and the public to support, military action to take control of Iraq.

    Mr. President: step up or step down.

    James Spence - 10/18/2005

    Whether a Democrat or a Republican government is in power is irrelevant.

    "evidence, once again, that lowering taxes ultimately results in higher revenues."

    Sure, but it’s hardly a fair economy. So higher revenues mean nothing to the majority of citizens. Total federal, state and local tax burden over the last 20 years has increasingly become the responsibility of middle-and low-income families - revenues being generated by taxes are not enough to pay for public services.

    The tax shifts are shifty: they gave the ignorant public a tax break. Shift in tax burdens went from Federal to state, from the wealthy to the working man (tax hike on working income was 25%)

    And what’s so good about the economy under Bush? The paper dollar which is basically junk is like all paper money. Today it’s taking more dollars buy gasoline, heating oil, college tuition and rent. There is definitely something wrong with the economy. If one doesn’t think so they’ve lost touch with reality. Why do you thing the Fed raises Fed Funds a quarter percent every time they get scared of inflation? They are as scared of inflation as the rest of the people. This administration has been on a spending binge that blows the mind The debts and deficits and liabilities are horrendous. Our current debt is about $7,986,677,006,850.36 http://www.publicdebt.treas.gov/opd/opdpenny.htm The only way to pay all this money back will be for the government to default on the debt or inflate them away. To have faith in the Fed today is to believe in "faith-based" money. The deficit matters for a healthy economy.

    I see no evidence that this administration has made the majority of Americans better off. I won’t to bother cite all the evidence on this.

    John H. Lederer - 10/17/2005

    "If the Republicans retain control of Congress and the economy hold steady, even with high energy costs, the war in Iraq will determine the success of his second term and of his entire presidency."

    If the Democrats control Congress, the economy falls, and gas becomes dirt cheap, the war in Iraq will determine his success.

    Probably his second biggest contribution is providing evidence, once again, that lowering taxes ultimately results in higher revenues. The issue is no longer an economic question, but one of ideology.

    John Cameron - 10/17/2005

    Federal Budget Deficit $500 Billions.
    U.S.Trade deficit $700 Billions
    Unfunded Govt.liabilities ????
    Worse still no CORRECTION.

    John Cameron - 10/17/2005

    Politicians of Bush ilk basically do not do anything without a motive that suits their fundamental ideals.
    Novus Ordo Seclorum.