What Will It Take for Bush to Come Back?

It's a stock Hollywood turnaround: the battered fighter, all but beaten, picks himself up off the mat and gets back in it. He throws a good punch and connects. He does it again, his opponent reels. The crowd roars. Next thing you know, the referee is declaring the plucky hero the winner.

That's the scenario the White House strategists have in mind for the thousand days President Bush has left in office. But how do the producers of this movie make it happen? Where do they begin?

Recent days have brought glimmers of hope. They have also brought signs of how tough this turnaround will be.

Glimmer number one came from Baghdad. The removal of a key obstacle named Ibrahim al-Jafaari broke a months-long logjam, allowing formation of a new national unity government. The new Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki has three weeks to name his Cabinet and complete that process.

This is only the beginning of a new phase in democratizing Iraq, but it is crucial. Without a government to back, it is difficult for the Bush administration to show progress. And without some sign of success, it is all but impossible for the administration to begin the U.S. troop withdrawals that would placate impatience with the war at home.

The rise of the al-Maliki regime, however shaky, allowed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to go to Baghdad and associate himself with a positive development. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined him there, signaling that there was unity within the U.S. national government as well.

But it was Rumsfeld who had to be happiest about the trip. The Pentagon boss needed the change of story and of venue after weeks in which calls for his resignation had become a drumbeat on the Potomac. In Baghdad, Rumsfeld could surround himself with the active-duty military still visibly committed to his leadership.

The week was also a PR success for the continuing staff changes within the White House itself. The media were generally friendly to the idea of replacing spokesman Scott McClellan with Tony Snow, a FOX news personality and former editorial writer. Snow fits the new pattern of White House topsiders personified by new chief of staff Josh Bolten, his new deputy Joel Kaplan and new budget director Rob Portman. Personable, telegenic and well-connected on Capitol Hill, the new team's academic resumes feature Princeton, Harvard, Dartmouth and the University of Chicago. None is a Texan.

As April ended, the new team got a sweet note from the numbers. The economy grew at a 4.8% rate in the first quarter of 2006, seeming to confirm every confident statement President Bush has made dating back to his first term. Optimism brimmed over in the financial markets as well, where major indexes reached their highest levels since before the terror attacks of September 2001.

The president also made progress on immigration, hosting a White House pep rally for senators pushing for the kind of comprehensive bill he wants. The word comprehensive has become code for a bill including border enforcement, a temporary guest worker program and "an earned pathway to citizenship." The code word used by critics of such legislation is still, of course, “amnesty.” Prospects for a comprehensive bill remain no better than 50-50, but at least the president was able to keep the ball in the air.

Yet for all this good news, Mr. Bush ended the month on something of a down note. Another poll story appeared, this one in the Wall Street Journal, showing his approval rating at 36 percent and the populace filled with discouragement about all things foreign and domestic – including, remarkably enough, the economy.

As May began, the most compelling story in the public mind was the price of gasoline. Gasoline prices at the U.S. pump neared an average of $3 per gallon for regular, which meant most Americans were already paying that much and more.

Just as arresting was the reaction on Capitol Hill, where members with lots else to think about abandoned themselves to pump price hysteria. One gaggle of senators proposed sending motorists an immediate rebate of $100 to ease the pain. One can imagine the slogan: "Relax, Congress wants to buy you a tank-and-a-half of gas."

The president himself gave a speech on renewable fuels and said America had to "get off oil." But the accompanying policy prescriptions amounted to the usual suspects. The president wanted fewer environmental regulations, more oil- and gas-drilling and access to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). There was vague talk of revisiting the gas-efficiency standards for American-made cars, but nothing too disruptive. The big “breakthrough” was a four-month deferral of deliveries to the strategic petroleum reserve.

In truth, the latest round of price increases will bring more political bickering in Washington, making impossible the grand reckoning the nation needs on its energy use. Congress and the White House are looking for ways to batten the hatches between now and November, not for ways to prepare the country for economic or ecological disaster.

The strategy of those in power is to make palliative changes in the short term and count on global factors to shift in their favor as soon as possible. This is true not only on the energy front, but on the full landscape of policy problems.

The new White House team now taking over will be fresher, feistier and slicker. It will have better lines of communication with Congress. But it will remain the prisoner of events set in motion by the first five years of the Bush presidency. That means it will need more than Hollywood magic to get its champ back up off the canvas.

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