President Takes Weakened Political Clout Abroad

After the midterm elections, President Bush's clout took a hit at home. But what about on the world stage? The way world leaders received President Bush this past week may impact how he approaches meeting with foreign heads of state in the future.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

There are more leaks from the Iraq Study Group's report, which is due on the president's desk next week. The Washington Post says the commission is to recommend withdrawing almost all U.S. combat units by early 2008, leaving some troops behind to train and advise.

And starting as early as next month, U.S. soldiers would be embedded with Iraqi security units to improve leadership and effectiveness. According to the Post, the early 2008 date is more a conditional goal linked to circumstances on the ground than from a timetable. Timetables have been repeatedly rejected by President Bush, who says they could further destabilize Iraq.

YDSTIE: The president is back in the U.S. after a trip to the Baltics for a meeting with NATO allies, and a quick visit to Jordan for a face-to-face meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This was the president's second whirlwind tour overseas since his party suffered big losses in last month's midterm elections, elections in which Iraq was a major issue.

Observers at home and abroad were watching closely to see whether the setback would affect Mr. Bush's stature and behavior on the world stage.

NPR White House correspondent, Don Gonyea, reports.

DON GONYEA: It was an usually busy month of foreign travel for the president. This week it was Estonia, Latvia and Jordan. A week earlier, he got home from visits to Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia - a grueling travel challenge under the best of circumstances, but even more so coming immediately after the Republican's loss of the House and Senate.

In spite of that, the president was in many ways his usual self. In Singapore, he restated his commitment to more open trade between the U.S. and Asia. In Riga, Latvia, he celebrated the Baltic nation's young democracy 15 years after it broke free of Soviet dominance.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: By joining hands, the people of this region show their unity and their determination to live in freedom, and have made clear to the Soviet authority that the Baltic peoples would accept nothing less than complete independence.

GONYEA: But both of these overseas trips included signs of how things have now changed for the president. In Vietnam, the midterms came up during a closed-door meeting with heads of state from Pacific Rim nations.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters in Hanoi that the president had reassured the other leaders that he is firm in his views and that U.S. foreign policy won't change. What Hadley described was an unusual moment to be sure, a president who has dominated these summits in the past stressing that he's still in charge.

This week's trip included an even stranger moment. While flying on Air Force One to Jordan, the president's aides got a call informing them that the Iraqi prime minister would not be attending a scheduled dinner meeting that evening with Mr. Bush and King Abdullah of Jordan. That in effect made what had been billed as a two-day summit a one-day event. The abrupt change came after The New York Times published a leaked White House memo in which the national security adviser raised doubts about Maliki's abilities, at one point wondering if he is, quote, “ignorant of what is going on.”

White House aides insisted that Maliki's cancellation was not a snub. But the controversy dominated the first day in Jordan. The next day, the president and prime minister did meet, and each downplayed the incident with the president praising Maliki.

President BUSH: He's the right guy for Iraq. And we're going to help him, and it's in our interest to help him.

GONYEA: And the president used the moment with Maliki to fire back at those who say he needs to begin bringing U.S. troops home.

President BUSH: I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq. We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as their government wants us there.

GONYEA: That felt like the old President Bush talking, even though changing circumstances gave the words a different ring. The last two American presidents who served two terms in office - Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan - each overcame big political troubles at home to score notable victories overseas in their final two years in office. Reducing the threat of nuclear war in one case, and ending a war in the Balkan's in the other.

Reagan and Clinton saw their stature increase in the world as well. President Bush could find a similar opportunity in the current chaos in Iraq, or in ending the nuclear threat from North Korea or Iran. But the key for Clinton and Reagan was rethinking their previous approaches, and for now the current president seems more focused on perseverance.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

YDSTIE: In his column at npr.org, NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving lays out the choices confronting President Bush in the homestretch of his presidency. In his column at npr.org.

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No Longer in Charge, But Always Important

The words hung in the air over the Thanksgiving table, a fragment of conversation that caused everyone to fall silent. Someone had said: "That was when Bush was still president." And while everyone knew what was actually meant, everyone also sensed the impulse behind the error.

Over the past three weeks, the power of this president has waned dramatically — and not just because control of the Congress slipped from his grasp. The much-quoted Speaker Tip O'Neill used to say that when people in Washington think you have power, that's when you have power. That maxim of perception-as-reality works the other way around, too.

This is not a matter of polling numbers. President Bush's approval rating has fallen into the low 30s, but it has been there before. What has changed is not his popularity, but the perception of his importance — or lack of it.

The president still travels and makes statements about national policy, almost on a daily basis. In fact, he has spent much of the post-election period either overseas or preparing to go overseas, acting his role as world leader. His eight-day tour of Asian nations (with side trips to Russia and Hawaii) was among the longest of his presidency. And this week, he will attend important meetings on European unity and then conduct a crucial summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan.

But even with all this momentous moving about, the president's presence or pronouncements are no longer the automatic lead story on the nightly news or in the next day's paper. The presumption that the news begins with the White House has faded overnight.

The immediate cause of this turnaround is, of course, the Democratic takeover of the House and Senate. But it goes deeper than that. The White House has been knocked off its rails not only by the loss of its lawmaking partners or the rise of angry committee chairmen bent on oversight (and retribution). The White House has also suffered grievous damage to its aura of political savvy.

Now the world sees a presidential operation that did not sense its day of reckoning approaching. Congressional Republicans may have felt the chill months ago; the White House apparently did not.

Missing the signals had real consequences. It led to the judgment that keeping Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in place through the election was, on balance, a political plus. Dozens of defeated incumbents now bitterly denounce this particular miscalculation.

Worse yet, the White House had to witness its big gun not only misfiring but backfiring. They rolled out the president himself on a furious tour in the final days, barnstorming through states he had carried in 2000 and 2004.

"The people in Washington are picking out their offices," he said. "They forgot that the good people of Kansas haven't voted yet."

But when the good people of Kansas did vote, they re-elected their Democratic governor and ousted incumbent Republican Rep. Jim Ryun (giving Democrats two of the state's four House seats).

Despite the defensive choice of ground, the president's late thrust seems to have done little good. It may well have done more harm. His presence in Indiana, Missouri, Montana and even Kansas served to underscore the connection between each embattled Republican incumbent and the embattled Republican president. And on no issue was this more clearly the case than on Iraq, the issue that mattered most.

President Bill Clinton went through a similar rejection when voters delivered the House and Senate to the GOP in 1994. In the months that followed, the new majority ignored the president and pursued their own "Contract with America." At a news conference, a questioner asked Clinton whether he was "still relevant."

Clinton replied that presidents always had relevance under the Constitution. It was a civics class answer, but Clinton also had another answer in the works. He looked for his spots and used his constitutional powers when they mattered most. Within a year, his importance was no longer in question.

Clinton realized that while he was no longer in charge, he remained well-positioned to affect everything the government did. Any president, even an appointed caretaker such as Gerald Ford in the 1970s, can shape events with his veto and unique access to the public — especially when the country is at war.

So in 1996, Clinton worked with the Republican majorities in Congress to pass a series of legislative landmarks. One was an overhaul of the welfare system, a goal Clinton and the Republican Congress shared. Another allowed employees to take health insurance with them when they changed jobs. The president and the Congress went into that year's election cooperating on trade and on a budget that would eventually yield a surplus (the first in a generation).

And it worked. The voters re-elected Clinton and the Republican majorities in 1996.

The current president's case may have more in common with the predicament President Ronald Reagan faced after losing the Senate in 1986. Reagan, like the current incumbent, had just two more years to serve. But with bold shifts in White House personnel and priorities, Reagan recaptured some of his earlier momentum and cut deals with a Democratic Congress. And Reagan went out a winner.

The precedents and the pathway to recovery are clear. The alternative is to do battle with the new Congress for the next two years in hopes of a clean kill and a moment of triumph for Republicans and for the president personally in 2008.

The president will have to decide.

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