Caught in the crosswinds of good news and bad, the Bush White House can give thanks this week for a better set of talking points.
Topping the list is the news that scientists now think they can reprogram human skin cells as stem cells, opening boundless opportunities for curing diseases and replacing damaged tissue. This means potentially life-saving stem cell research may not require the harvesting of human embryos or ova. And that means the intense debate that has hobbled such research in the U.S. may be circumvented.
So, President Bush can say he was right all along to resist the reliance on embryonic stem cells, and right to veto popular legislation that Congress passed to expand such research.
Along with that clear victory came another round of encouraging stories from the front about progress in Iraq. The buildup of U.S. troops there seems to be suppressing the violence that had brought that country to the brink of chaos. And while the so-called surge has yet to bring the political settlement it was designed to permit, the lower casualty counts and scenes of normal life are the first signs of success in a long time.
The White House was also able to announce the convening of a Middle East peace conference on U.S. soil, the first meeting of its kind since George W. Bush took office. While prospects for the meeting were clouded, the agreement to talk was at least an encouraging sign.
The president's foreign policy team even took heart at the latest assurances from Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president who has declared a "state of emergency" in his volatile country. Although Musharraf has offended the core principle of the administration's foreign policy, the fear of his potential overthrow by Islamist militants catches the White House in an excruciating position, so gratitude greets even the slightest hint of easing from Musharraf.
And, as the first year of Democratic control draws to an end on Capitol Hill, the president still has the upper hand on an array of issue confrontations. His veto has been overridden only once (on a water projects bill), and his extra spending bills for Iraq and Afghanistan continue to win approval.
Yet it's hard to escape a pervasive sense of defensiveness about all of these talking points. And even in the presence of relative good news, the administration this week was reminded of the challenges its last year in office will bring.
There were the late-phase personnel stories that plague any aging administration. Longtime loyalist Fran Townsend announced that she was leaving as the top White House hand on intelligence and counter-terrorism. Former press secretary Scott McClellan let it out that his memoirs would accuse higher-ups of lying to him about the Valerie Plame CIA leak.
But those were one-day stories. Billowing beyond were the storm clouds.
— The buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq must reverse itself by March, as tours end and units are brought home.
— Tensions surrounding the U.S. relationship with Iran remain a major source of disquiet in the Persian Gulf region.
— The Iran situation is pushing oil prices upward, as did another round of hostile rhetoric from oil-rich Venezuela.
— The financial markets are still reeling from repeated shocks to the credit system related to the wobbly housing market.
— The Federal Reserve warned that economic growth would slow sharply in early 2008, bringing the specter of recession into view.
If there is one lesson that all Bush loyalists remember from the end of the first Bush presidency, it is the political poison of an economic downturn.
The first President Bush, buoyed by the advice of his economic team, tried fiercely to defy the evidence of recession in late 1991. That created a sense of disconnect that he never overcame in the primaries or the general election of 1992. And that, in turn, opened the door of the White House to a new president named Clinton.
The second President Bush has to be worried about letting that happen again.