President George W. Bush's lingering slide in public approval appears to have leveled off. Probably he has absorbed most of the damage from high unemployment, thornier-than-expected Iraqi war fallout and a general lack of political and policy focus.
That puts the president's political survival in his own hands, and he should take this opportunity to use those hands for a little heavy lifting. A good place to start would be inside his own shop. He should pick up a stout broom and start sweeping out the sniveling weasels who look upon issues of national security as if they were so many petty political rumors to be spread like confetti at some local Republican convention.
The recent leak of a CIA officer's identity was a silly and gratuitous act of inside baseball that accomplished nothing for the White House. It also put Robert Novak, a well-respected journalist, in the uncomfortable position of having to resist calls to reveal his sources. President Bush is above this sort of nonsense. If his organization is peopled by anyone with the mindset of a Richard Nixon minion, they should be shown the door before their boss's re-election campaign begins in earnest. And it should be the president himself who tells them to hit the road.
After he gets his hands around these lingering personnel issues, Bush should then train his grip on a few issues that appeal to voters conservative, liberal and everything in between. Here's one: How much longer is the federal government going to provide tax breaks and other incentives to large corporations, only to have them turn around and kick the teeth of the U.S. economy by exporting jobs to countries such as India? It's become a not-well-kept-secret that U.S. service jobs -- especially those that can be performed over phone lines or Internet connections -- are making their way overseas. That's particularly troubling when one considers that we have already ceded to developing nations the United States' standing as a manufacturing giant.
Here's another basic policy suggestion for the White House: How about a personal presidential effort to stem the wildly unrealistic spending spree now running rampant on Capitol Hill? The nation could sure make do with a set, dollar limit on how much we're going to spend to rebuild Iraq. Moreover, we also need further circumspection in the spending of money that now appears more intended to sway voters than to solve major policy problems.
For example, piping money to Africa to mitigate the spread of the AIDS virus is a goal backed by laudable intentions. But American taxpayers already are coughing up the funds to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan and God knows where else. And that doesn't even include massive new efforts to secure U.S. borders from attack. Even the noblest concepts of benevolent globalism must have their limits when times are tough at home.
For that matter, the same fiscal realism and discipline -- dare we say leadership? -- need to be applied here at home. It's unrealistic for both elected officials and those who voted for them to believe all our citizens' problems should be solved right now, in the middle of a seesaw economy and ever-mounting government deficits. Promising expanded drug benefits to Medicare patients may read well on a campaign poster, but who will pay for it? Besides, it's questionable these promises will create even short-term political gain when the proposed drug plan wouldn't even start for another two years. It sounds like little more than the creation of yet another big-ticket entitlement that can never be funded.
In large measure, President Bush controls his own fate. To do so, he must take matters into his own administrative hands. He's got to make some decisions that will restore order to the political landscape. Those decisions will be tough and probably unpopular with many people. But when you've lost 20 or so points in the approval ratings, your animating notion should be fairly straightforward: There's only one way to go, and that's up.