Down but not out

Michael Barone

10/10/2005 12:05:00 AM - Michael Barone

George W. Bush seems beset on all fronts. His job rating dipped to new lows after his torpid response to Hurricane Katrina. Casualties continue in Iraq, and some Democrats call for withdrawal now or by a date certain. The Social Security changes he campaigned for earlier this year seem unlikely to be enacted. Proposals to make tax cuts permanent are stalled in Congress -- and stalled proposals sometimes never come forward.

 The president's commission on tax reform is soon to report -- but no one seems much interested, and the last major tax reform took a full two years to work its way through Congress. Any proposals now would have, at best, 14 months.

 Moreover, the Republican base, which has given Bush stronger support than it gave Ronald Reagan, is now seething with discontent. Spending is too high, fiscal conservatives say, and they add that authorizing $100 billion and up for rebuilding New Orleans is way out of line. Bush's proposals to regularize the status of currently illegal immigrants are decried on talk radio and at town meetings.

 The right blogosphere is furious about Bush's appointment of his counsel, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court. They are itching for a fight on principle, convinced they could win in a Republican Senate. By not naming a nominee with bedrock conservative credentials, Bush in their view is flinching from a battle.

 But this is a president who responds to challenges with renewed bursts of vigor. In public appearances last week, Bush came out swinging in defense of his Iraq policy and in support of Miers. The Bush White House has not quite given up on Social Security, and top aides believe that House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas still wants to advance a version of individual investment accounts. Bush and the Republican Congress (with some Democratic help) have ground out tax cuts in a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust manner, and may well continue the strategy once the Katrina issues have been settled. The Republican House has already passed all 11 large appropriations bills for the next fiscal year, but there will be opportunity for more cuts when conference committees meet.

 Two days after his press conference, Bush spoke eloquently and in more specific detail than he has before on Iraq in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy. Bush identified our adversaries not, as he has in the past, as generic terrorists, but as "evil Islamic radicalism," "militant Jihadism" and "Islamo-fascism." He described the campaigns in which American forces, sometimes leading and sometimes aiding Iraqis, are clearing out Iraqi cities on the roads to Syria and then installing Iraqi units to prevent the enemy from returning. He described how more than 80 Iraqi battalions are now fighting alongside us, up from not much more than zero in July 2004.

 Recently returned Lt. Gen. David Petraeus provides additional detail: More than 36 Iraqi battalions are capable of fighting "in the lead," and another 80 are capable of "fighting alongside" American forces.

 Effective war leaders like Franklin Roosevelt have used a narrative framework to tell citizens how progress is being made and work is being done to assure progress in the future. Bush did a better job of that last week than he has in some time. He needs to keep it up to counter mainstream media that have mostly focused on casualty counts. And to make clear the consequences of withdrawal or failure: "Would the United States and other free nations be more safe, or less safe, with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people and its resources?"

 On domestic policy, Bush has been pursuing the plans he set out in his 2000 campaign, some of which seem blocked, temporarily or permanently. His gas tank is running low. Of course, the Democrats have little in the way of specific proposals, aside from repeal of the Bush tax cuts -- they've been running on empty since Bill Clinton left office.

 That invites the public to say a pox on both parties. But it also provides an opening for Bush to lay out a more robust agenda -- maybe in his State of the Union next January -- one geared to the years ahead, instead of his priorities in 2000. Bush seems beset now, but he has a chance to rebound and confound his vitriolic critics once again.