Bush’s fourth quarter

ON THE EVE of his seventh State of the Union address, President Bush’s Texas swagger is muted. Not long ago, Bush famously called himself “the decider,” but the drubbing he took in November’s elections has reduced him to being “educator in chief,” as he referred to himself on “60 Minutes” a week ago.

He wasn’t referring to education, of course; he’s realized that he’s lost the support of most of the country (and Congress) on the war in Iraq and that he needs to “educate” them back into the fold. The problem for the administration, as it enters the fourth quarter, is that persuasion has never been its strength.

Quite the contrary — it’s been anathema to its political approach. In the aftermath of the Clinton years, the Bush administration proudly stood against nuance and muddled compromise. The 9/11 attacks reinforced the White House’s penchant for viewing the world in binary terms, and Bush’s “with us or against us” mantra fit the moment. On issue after issue, from tax cuts to Iraq to its tactics against suspected terrorists, this administration has portrayed opponents as beyond the pale, while its own positions are crucial to the defense of Western civilization. Until recently, Bush also seemed pathologically incapable of conceding any failings or of deviating from campaign-style happy talk, even about the clearly deteriorating situation in Iraq.

Such absolutism is hard to sustain in a messy democracy (or a messy world, for that matter). It makes altering course all the more shocking — not just to those who support the administration, who feel misled or, worse, used, but to those who advocated for change. So, for instance, it was jarring to see the administration suddenly drop its insistence that judges should have no oversight over the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program. It was the right thing to do, but it was hard to reconcile with the White House’s previous hyperbolic narrative.

There have been other whiplash-inducing U-turns for Bush, along with more than a few policy dead-ends. Remember those ill-advised steel import tariffs? And whatever happened to all that talk of going to Mars and overhauling Social Security? After 9/11, the president initially opposed federalizing airport security and creating a Department of Homeland Security. He changed course on the military’s interrogation methods and on whether Guantanamo detainees were covered by the Geneva Convention. In another departure, the administration engaged North Korea in bilateral talks last week, and there is talk of starting to take global warming seriously.

This isn’t to say that Bush is exceptionally inconsistent. It’s that he’s exceptionally obstinate, and so changes in policy prove more damaging to his credibility than they might be otherwise.

On Iraq, of course, the president is still (though he would not put it this way) staying the course, insofar as he believes (rightly, in our view) that it would be disastrous for the United States to walk blithely away from the mess it created. That Bush himself only recently seems to have noticed the mess in Iraq — or acknowledged it — is one of those credibility-sapping traits that doesn’t inspire much confidence in his ability to succeed.

To be fair, this is never an easy time for a second-term president. Bush is in the uncomfortable position of having to rely on the likes of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr to define his legacy. But then, at least he’s not spending his days forced to deny having sex with “that woman,” dealing with allegations that he illegally funneled arms to a Central American insurgency or fending off efforts to get at his incriminating tapes.

Bush will be with us for another two years, and this Tuesday, with the State of the Union address, he will attempt to begin engineering a fourth-quarter comeback. Iraq will remain at the forefront, of course, but Bush desperately needs to find ways to remain relevant on the domestic front as well. Comprehensive immigration reform would be one way to do that, and perhaps Bush will embrace environmentalism in the same way that Ronald Reagan improbably embraced arms control in his last years in office.

Regardless of the issue, the most worrisome aspect of the Bush administration at this point is the president’s lack of stature. It sounds corny, but the president of the United States remains the leader of the free world, and it’s essential for him to command respect and authority on the global stage. The unsettling question about Bush in his fourth quarter is whether anyone will take him seriously the next time he identifies a crisis — especially if, and when, it’s a real crisis.