Rupert Cornwell: Can George Bush recover his authority?


America is not a parliamentary democracy. If it were, the chances are that a prime minister George W Bush would by now have lost a no-confidence vote in Congress, and the Republican Party and the United States would be under new leadership.

The second terms of US presidents are rarely resplendent successes. But with the sole exception of Richard Nixon, none has fallen as far and as fast as the present one. Was it really just 14 months ago that Bush was standing on the steps of the Capitol, backed by enlarged Republican majorities in the House and Senate, promising to eradicate tyranny from the earth? Indeed it was, but you would be pressed to remember amid the recent disasters: Katrina, the Harriet Miers nomination, the CIA leak case, warrant-less wiretapping by the National Security Agency of the type that contributed to Nixon's downfall, and now the Dubai port deal humiliation.

And of course, Iraq, Iraq and always Iraq.

Whether the White House likes it or not, Bush's is now a war presidency. The economy is flourishing, but no one notices. Tax and social security reform, once supposed to be the domestic leitmotifs of the second term, have bitten the dust. Nothing escapes the miasma of Iraq, and that country's apparently inarrestible descent towards civil war.

The President's approval rating of between 34 and 38 per cent (depending on your choice of poll), and the polls' perhaps even more damning finding that two thirds of the population believe the US is "on the wrong track", tell only part of the story. More profoundly, and possibly fatally, Bush's very competence is now at issue. The repeated miscues at home and the depressing daily dispatches from Iraq subconsciously reinforce a sense that he is simply not up to the job.

Better this epiphany late than never, will be the reaction of Bush-haters across the world. But, as I pointed out at the start, America is not a parliamentary democracy. Barring the most unlikely event of impeachment (whose minimum condition is a Democratic recapture of both House and Senate this autumn), Bush is with us until 20 January 2009.

It is surely in the interest of no one (with the exception of Osama bin Laden) that America is as badly governed over the next 34 months as it has been for the last 14. So what is to be done? There are two answers - or perhaps they are two sides of a single coin. The first is a change of personnel. From this, ideally, will flow the second requirement: a change of style.

The administration's foes like to put its misfortunes down to hubris, an imperial presidency run amok, now consumed by its very arrogance. There is however a more prosaic explanation: exhaustion on the job. Bush, as is well known, likes familiar faces around him, and prizes loyalty above all virtues. As a result, those around him tend to stay for ever - and it shows.

In the all-important national security field, Dick Cheney, though discredited, is in practice immovable - unless he steps down of his own accord, perhaps using that well-known heart condition as a pretext. Secretaries of Defense, however, can be replaced, yet Donald Rumsfeld, whose misjudgements about the Iraq war become more evident by the week, remains at the Pentagon.

The same goes for the top operatives at the White House. Andrew Card, for example, has held the immensely taxing post of chief of staff - 16- to 18-hour working days, six days a week - ever since Bush took office. If he makes it to November, he will break the record of Sherman Adams, who served in the far gentler times of Dwight Eisenhower. Or take Karl Rove, so long the unchallenged master of the dark political arts, but who has seriously lost his touch of late.

In short, if ever there were a time for fresh blood, for an old-fashioned British reshuffle, it is now. There is a precedent, offered by a fairly recent occupant of the Oval Office whom Bush especially admires.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan's second term was sinking in the morass of the Iran-Contra scandal, amid similar questions of competence. Reagan was as unaware of the shenanigans of Oliver North as Bush seems to have been of the Dubai Port World takeover. Yet Reagan was big enough to seek independent outside advice. He took it, and remade his White House staff, setting the stage for the triumphant summitry with Mikhail Gorbachev that rounded out his second term.

Is Bush capable of the same? If so, then new people and new energy could bring about the change in style that is so desperately needed. You still might not agree with the administration's policies - but at least the White House would appear to be up to the job. Here again, though, we run foul of another Bush trait, the conviction that to change course is to admit error.

The alternative is to trust to the judgement of history. There too, a precedent exists. Harry Truman left office in January 1953 with his reputation in tatters, and approval ratings even lower than Bush's now. Then as now, the US was bogged down in a stalemated far-away war, which had cost thousands of American lives.

Today, Truman's reputation has never been higher. Most historians rank him in the "near great" category of presidents, behind only George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Just conceivably, history's verdict on George W Bush will be equally kind. Alas, however, events stand still for no man.

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