As President George W. Bush struggles to deal with the daunting challenges of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, he seems to have lost some of the political magic that has defined his political career since he ran for governor of Texas.
For a dozen years, Mr. Bush has been able to rise to moments of challenge. With a speech, a decisive action or a deft political move, he has rallied the public to his cause — confounding his rivals and critics.
This summer has been different. As troubles mount, the president's efforts to turn things around seem to lack their previous punch.
To assess why he's having such difficulty these days, we need to look back at one of the primary reasons he's done so well.
George W. Bush's rise to the presidency began when he was an upset winner against Texas Gov. Ann Richards in 1994. He ran a rough and tumble campaign against Richards, a popular incumbent with a growing national reputation.
Behind the Bush win: A group of close advisers known as "The Iron Triangle." That troika consisted of Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Joe Allbaugh.
Candidate Bush knew and trusted them personally. He counted on their judgment and counsel, which he valued over that of better-known political operatives. National figures in the party were always urging him to bring bigger names aboard, but he stuck with his team in good times and bad. It was Bush, Rove, Hughes and Allbaugh — all the way to the White House.
So where are they now?
Karl Rove is the only member of the Iron Triangle still at the White House. He moved directly from the campaign into a West Wing office, where he ran the administration's political operation (and, in some measure, the entire Republican Party). After helping the president win a second term, Rove added a new title, deputy chief of staff. Observers wondered at this, knowing what pre-eminent clout Rove already possessed.
Rove himself became a page 1 news figure this summer, because a special prosecutor named Patrick Fitzgerald is conducting a grand jury investigation to learn who leaked the name of CIA employee Valerie Plame to the media in 2003. It is known that Rove talked about Plame to some reporters. It's not known if he's the target of the investigation, but he has been questioned multiple times by Fitzgerald and his aides, as well as by the FBI.
In any event, for all his oft-praised political genius, Rove has been off his game more than a bit in recent weeks. He was taking a brief few days away from the president's side in early August, when the president got a black eye for refusing to meet with Cindy Sheehan at his Texas ranch. Sheehan, whose son had died in Iraq, became a national cause celebre. At the end of the month, the president's early response to Hurricane Katrina lacked urgency, suggesting that his political synapses were not functioning.
The president seemed reluctant to end his month-long, working vacation at his ranch after Katrina hit. His decision to fly over the carnage was widely regarded as bad image-making. His early statements of response seemed awkward, and included Mr. Bush's now infamous praising of the now ex-head of FEMA, Mike Brown. ("Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job"). Although Mr. Bush has recovered enough to show concern in more recent visits to the region, his national address from Jackson Square in New Orleans on Sept. 15 was an eerie exercise in an empty city, performed without a live audience.
Where was Karl Rove, and his political expertise, through all of this?
Perhaps some of the president’s current troubles could be explained by the absence of Iron Triangle member Karen Hughes. It has always been Hughes who had the best knack for channeling the president's thoughts and helping him find just the right way to express himself. Her mix of folksiness and confidence was almost inseparable from Mr. Bush's own, and she lent credence to the compassionate part of the "compassionate conservative" label he chose for himself in 2000.
Hughes left the White House in 2002 to concentrate on her family. But she has now been sworn in as a special ambassador in charge of boosting the image of the United States abroad — especially in the Arab world. This week, Hughes has been saying that the bad impression made by Hurricane Katrina was mostly the fault of a foreign press unwilling to see the good in America.
Whether the blunt-speaking Hughes is the right person for this new job remains to be seen. But it does seem evident that the president misses having her nearby at the White House. She does keep in touch with her former boss, and she still advises him. But she's no longer present in the daily meetings at the White House.
The third side of the Iron Triangle, Joe Allbaugh, is the least well known. He was chief of staff to Governor Bush in Texas and campaign manager of the 2000 presidential bid. President Bush named him to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2001.
Allbaugh did not have experience dealing with disaster management. He left after two years on the job to set up his own consulting business. But he's come under renewed scrutiny after Hurricane Katrina, because he was responsible for Mike Brown, the FEMA director who has just resigned under fire in the post-Katrina maelstrom. Allbaugh brought Brown, a college buddy, to work at FEMA, where Brown became Allbaugh's deputy and then his successor. In the midst of the current crisis, Brown's background as head of the International Arabian Horse Association did not play well.
Today, Allbaugh can likely be found amid the hurricane damage in the Gulf Coast, working not for the government but for clients who are paying him to help find business and lucrative government contracts as the entire region begins to rebuild. Allbaugh continues to advise clients about how to land government contracts in Iraq as well. So the former campaign manager and Bush insider may no longer be in the president's inner circle, but his deep history with Mr. Bush is an asset he is using to bring in business today.
At the White House, Karl Rove remains the president's closest adviser among the ranks of appointees. But he is the only one of the original three who sees the president day in and day out. As such, the president no longer has the kind of team he once had in the Iron Triangle, a cadre of longtime insiders who could give him advice AND who could tell him when he's wrong.
Now, none of this is to say the president would be doing anything differently — or any better — if the triangle were still in place. Maybe events have brought the Bush administration to a place where all the advisers and all the spin in the world won't do the trick against a monster hurricane and a difficult war. Maybe the only thing that will turn things around for the president in the eyes of the American public would be clear success on both fronts. That's something no adviser or collection of advisers can give him, no matter how smart or how close.