Of course George Bush is a lame duck. His poll numbers are dreadful, a hostile Democratic leadership runs Congress and core advisers like Karl Rove are checking out.
But any president – even one this diminished – retains enormous power to shape public policy. And every sign indicates that Bush plans to use that power “right up to the moment that he leaves,” as Rove told Fox News.
There are some things the president can no longer do. Appoint strict conservatives to the federal bench, for one. In fact, Bush’s ability to fill any post requiring Senate confirmation is limited. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is still around partly because any replacement would face such tough grilling on Capitol Hill.
The president’s power to enact legislation has also drained away. Witness his failure to revise immigration laws. Many Republicans no longer feel afraid of, or loyal to, this White House and they are more interested in getting re-elected than burnishing the president’s legacy.
But counting out this president would be a huge mistake. In at least 10 ways, Bush can be a potent player during his last 18 months in office:
COMMANDER IN CHIEF: While a strong majority opposes his Iraq policy, the president’s war-making power remains largely unchallenged. Even contenders for the Democratic nomination acknowledge that changing his approach will not be easy. “This is going to take a while,” said Sen. Hillary Clinton (New York) during the last debate in Iowa. Added Sen. Barack Obama (Illinois): “George Bush drove the bus into the ditch, and there are only so many ways you can pull that bus out of the ditch.”
BULLY PULPIT: The president has to limit his public appearances to friendly territory, like military bases, but he still has the biggest megaphone around. Classic example: Democratic leaders were petrified of his ability to criticize their handling of national security issues, and as a result, in the days before the August recess, they passed a bill giving the president expanded powers to conduct surveillance of terrorist targets.
INHERENT POWERS: The White House insists that a doctrine called a “unitary executive” is embedded in the Constitution. This means that legislation “is just advisory,” in the words of conservative legal scholar Bruce Fein, and “the president can still do whatever he wants to do.” One example: at a recent meeting with wiretapping experts, reported by The New York Times, White House lawyers “signaled that, in their view, the president retains his constitutional authority to do whatever it takes to protect the country, regardless of any action Congress takes” to limit his power to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists.
PERSONAL STUBBORNNESS: Top Republicans have urged Bush to fire the attorney general, but Gonzales remains in office. Democratic leaders have threatened to cite White House aides, who refuse to respond to congressional subpoenas, for criminal contempt. But if U.S. attorneys, who work for the Bush Justice Department, won’t pursue a criminal case, the Democrats can’t enforce their demands.
REGULATIONS: The administration has wide discretion to interpret congressional action through regulation. Case in point: new rules governing a program that provides health insurance for needy children severely limits the ability of states to broaden eligibility.
LAW ENFORCEMENT: No White House can enforce all laws equally, so priorities are important. Recently, under pressure from conservative supporters, Bush has taken a much tougher line on the arrest and deportation of illegal immigrants.
VETOES: The president placed strict limits on federal funding for stem-cell research, and while large majorities in Congress disagree with his policy, the limits remain in force because lawmakers cannot over-ride his veto. Democrats can pass all the measures they want cutting off funds for the Iraq war or changing the mission of the troops, but as long as 34 senators back the president they will fail to change his policy.
DIPLOMACY: President Reagan traveled to Moscow in the last months of his presidency and forged a new relationship with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Bush is unlikely to do anything so dramatic, but he is clearly exploring overtures that would make Iran a force for stability in Iraq, not strife.
CAMPAIGN MONEY: No matter what his polls numbers say, the president can still raise plenty of cash for GOP candidates from the party faithful.
PARDONS: The president’s own father pardoned five conspirators in the Iran-Contra affair less than a month before leaving office.
President Bush might be isolated and unpopular, but what you hear coming from Pennsylvania Avenue is the sound of a lame duck quacking.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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