There may have been moments during their summit at his family’s compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, when President George W. Bush looked with envy on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, whose popularity at home guarantees him vast influence, even as he prepares to leave office just nine months from now.
Not so for Bush, whose public approval ratings, according to polls released last week, have reached all-time lows, and whose influence—even over his own party—appears to be declining at warp speed.
The latter phenomenon was demonstrated to devastating effect in late June when 37 of the Senate’s 49 Republicans deserted the president on a critical procedural vote that appears to have doomed Bush’s hopes for comprehensive immigration reform through the remaining 18 months of his term.
The vote marked the defeat of the most important (and probably easiest) of the four top domestic priorities of Bush’s second term, the other three being changing the social security system, easing taxes, and instituting legislation designed to discourage tort litigation and class actions. "He is now almost zero-for-four," noted the Washington Post.
But the defeat of the immigration bill was just one of a whole series of events in late June that appeared to diminish whatever residual political strength Bush enjoyed going into the summer months.
The week began with a declaration of independence—and total frustration—by two key Republican senators, former Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana and Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, over Bush’s determination to maintain his "surge" strategy in Iraq beyond next fall.
A floor speech by Lugar, which was also hailed by former Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-VA), appeared to confirm that Bush, his military commanders, and diplomatic officers in Baghdad have no more than 75 days—or until mid-September—to produce a dramatic turnaround in Iraq, or else face irresistible political pressure in Congress to begin withdrawing U.S. combat troops by early 2008 at the latest.
In a subsequent interview, Lugar compared his speech to his break with Ronald Reagan over Reagan’s veto of anti-apartheid legislation in the mid-1980s. Lugar played a key role in getting Congress to override the veto, the only time Congress did so in Reagan’s eight years in power.
Late June also saw the end of Bush’s five-year-old "fast-track" authority to negotiate new trade agreements. Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives also vowed to oppose a pending trade deal with South Korea and another with Colombia.
Renewing fast-track authority, which permits the president to submit new trade accords to Congress for an up-or-down vote without the possibility of any amendments, was another top administration priority that now appears to have fallen by the wayside.
If those setbacks were not enough, the Washington Post ran an unprecedented investigative series last week on Dick Cheney‘s role that depicted the president as essentially the young dauphin to the vice president’s Cardinal Richelieu—something that has long been understood by Washington insiders, but whose operational specifics were until now somewhat elusive.
Bush’s extraordinary commutation of the prison sentence meted out to Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for lying to federal investigators, will surely add to the impression that Bush, whose insistence that he would not intervene in the case while it was still on appeal, remains in thrall to the vice president and his neoconservative cheerleaders.
What the Post series disclosed, according to the paper’s veteran (if endlessly forgiving) political columnist, David Broder, was "a vice president who used the broad authority given him by a complaisant chief executive to bend the decision-making process to his own ends and purposes, often overriding Cabinet officers and other executive branch officials along the way."
The series, which provided new grist for the mills of late-night talk-show hosts and comedians, served only to further diminish Bush. His approval ratings in successive public opinion polls have now dropped to their lowest level ever and are approaching those of Richard Nixon just before his resignation from office in the wake of the Watergate scandal and his impeachment in 1974.
That the series coincided with Cheney’s unprecedented and widely mocked insistence that he did not have to abide by certain secrecy rules because, as president of the Senate, he did not consider himself part of the executive branch, only added to the derision leveled against the administration.
Indeed, Cheney’s own approval ratings, like Bush’s, have dropped to historic lows. Just 28% in a CBS News poll taken late last week said they approved of his handling of his job, down from 35% in early 2006, and a high of 56% in August 2002, the same month that he launched the administration’s own campaign to rally support for invading Iraq.
The same CBS poll found Bush at a record low of 27%, just one percentage point higher than the all-time, all-poll low recorded by Newsweek the preceding week. Fox News, whose surveys have generally shown higher approval rates than other polls, also reported its all-time low in late June, at 31%.
Bush’s public approval rating fell below 50% in most polls between his re-election in November 2004 and his second-term inauguration two months later and has not recovered since, giving him the record for the "longest sustained rejection by the American public" in modern U.S. history, according to the Post.
While vehement right-wing Republican opposition to the immigration bill helped explain Bush’s latest plunge in the polls, Iraq remains the single-most important factor to the president’s unpopularity.
In the recent CBS poll, 23% of respondents said they approved of his handling of the war, while 70%, including one-third of all self-identified Republicans, said they disapproved. Moreover, a whopping 77% of respondents said the war was going either "somewhat" (30%) or "very badly" (47%). A record 40% said all U.S. troops should be withdrawn, while another 26% said they favored decreasing the number of troops there now. A CNN poll taken a few days earlier showed similar numbers.
With elections 16 months away, Republican incumbents are increasingly aware that Bush and Cheney have become a serious drag on their political aspirations. And, as the election draws near, the pressure to break with the White House—absent a major change of course, at least in Iraq—will become irresistible, just as it did on the immigration bill.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org/).