Political Woes Mount at White House

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It's a challenging time for the Bush administration. Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers is out of the running amid criticism from presidential supporters and critics. And a federal grand jury could indict White House officials in the CIA leak case. How is President Bush coping?


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation will announce his findings later today. The lawyer for one man at the center of the inquiry, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, says the prosecutor has made no decision yet whether to charge his client. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to the vice president, is also a target of the investigation. As the White House awaits the results of the special prosecutor's investigation, NPR's David Greene has more on the political challenges ahead for the president.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

George W. Bush's path to the presidency came with a grand strategy, devised in large part by his political mentor, Karl Rove. One tenet of the plan was to avoid his father's missteps and make sure to keep his party's political base happy.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GREENE: At the 2000 Republican National Convention, Mr. Bush told an electrified crowd that a party united under his banner of compassionate conservatism had a bright future.

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President GEORGE W. BUSH: We are now the party of ideas and innovation, the party of idealism and inclusion, the party of a simple and powerful hope. My fellow citizens, we can begin again.

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GREENE: The Bush-Rove plan also included avoiding the mistakes of Bill Clinton, whose second term became overwhelmed by a sex scandal and an impeachment. Here's Mr. Bush on the campaign trail in 2000.

(Soundbite from 2000)

Pres. BUSH: In my administration, we will ask not only what is legal, but what is right.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. BUSH: Not just what the lawyers allow, but what the public deserves.

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Pres. BUSH: In my administration, we'll make it clear there is the controlling legal authority of conscience.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: And when he sought re-election four years later, Mr. Bush, with solid backing from Republicans and just enough swing voters, won a second term. At a postelection news conference, the president carried a swagger.

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Pres. BUSH: Let me put it to you this way. I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style. That's what happened in the--after the 2000 election. I earned some capital. I've earned capital in this election, and I'm going to spend it.

GREENE: But it would not prove to be so easy. Polls now show many Americans have lost their trust in Mr. Bush, in large part because they don't approve of his handling of the war in Iraq. And for the moment, the type of White House that Karl Rove envisioned has, in some ways, been upended. Conservative lawmakers and pundits resisted the choice of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, and so yesterday, after conceding that her nomination had become a burden on the White House, Miers stepped aside.

Meanwhile, a special prosecutor is set to announce his findings in a CIA leak investigation that has focused on senior White House officials. Mr. Bush was asked at a news conference last week if this probe and a conservative backlash against Miers was getting in the way of his agenda.

(Soundbite of news conference)

Pres. BUSH: There's some background noise here, a lot of chatter, a lot of speculation and opining, but the American people expect me to do my job, and I'm going to.

GREENE: George Edwards is a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. He said beginning with Hurricane Katrina, but especially during the grand jury investigation and in the face of the opposition to Miers, the Bush White House has been in an unfamiliar position: not in control.

Professor GEORGE EDWARDS (Texas A&M University): This White House has always been, I think, very strategically oriented and done a very good job of squeezing what they can out of the particular context in which they find themselves. Now they're in a responsive mode, and someone else is in charge, and that's very difficult, and they don't have a lot of political capital to dig their way out of it.

GREENE: Polls show Mr. Bush's approval ratings around 40 percent. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had similar numbers in the middle of their eight years and left office with majority support from Americans. How will Mr. Bush try to regain his political footing? Professor Edwards said he expects Mr. Bush first to try to thread a needle, finding a new Supreme Court nominee who pleases conservatives but does not produce a backlash from Democrats. Then if the grand jury does hand out indictments of any senior White House officials, Edwards said the president may try to follow the path of Ronald Reagan, who brought new faces into the White House in the wake of the Iran/Contra scandal.

Prof. EDWARDS: It might help overcome an administration that has been distracted or demoralized and burnt out, but even wise heads are not going to be able to easily overcome this basic political context in which the president finds himself. So I have to argue that there is no silver bullet.

GREENE: When the president has looked for silver bullets in the past, he's always been able to turn to his most trusted adviser. News from Karl Rove's lawyer today is that he has not been indicted but remains under investigation. So his future alongside Mr. Bush may be out of his control. David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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