Posted on August 13, 2007 in Washington Watch

Since becoming president, summers have not been very kind to George Bush, and this year is no exception. Bush’s approval ratings are at their lowest. His domestic agenda has all but collapsed. His vice president, attorney general and several key members of his staff are under attack from Congress and the media. And his foreign policy, especially the misadventure in Iraq, is in disarray. The remainder of this summer promises to be long, hot and difficult. But then, this has come to be a pattern.

Despite being declared the winner in the highly controversial 2000 election, Bush charged forward in early 2001 pushing an aggressive agenda. He won victories in Congress, but by the time summer rolled around, the impact of his tax cuts and renewed partisan rancor had begun to take a toll. As criticism mounted, particularly in the midst of what was called a “too long vacation,” Bush’s missteps cost Republicans the majority in the Senate when Jim Jeffords of Vermont bolted the party, announcing that he would join the Democratic Caucus. The President’s poll numbers dropped precipitously.

Then came September 11th.

The shock of the terrorist attack and Bush’s strong response doubled his approval ratings. During the next several months, the administration laid the groundwork for its approach to the “war on terror.”

What appeared to be early success in Afghanistan buoyed public support for the administration, but by mid summer of 2002, Bush was in trouble once again. Revelations of corporate corruption resulted in a plummeting stock market, which shook public confidence. In addition, the administration’s plans to attack Iraq brought sharp criticism from senior Republican statesmen, including not a few who had served in the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush. Once more, the president’s approval ratings dropped.

By the fall, Bush had again rebounded. Washington Democrats, fearing Republican attacks on their patriotism, supported a resolution authorizing the president to go to war. Emboldened by this win, Bush vigorously campaigned on the themes of national security and terrorism in the final weeks of the 2002 Congressional election, helping Republicans regain control of the Senate.

By the spring of 2003 we were at war in Iraq, and in May Bush declared that all major combat operations were over before a great banner that read, “Mission Accomplished.” This led even some former critics to assume that his presidency was secure.

But by mid summer, the national mood had changed. Despite toppling Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, hostilities continued and more questions were being asked both about the veracity of the case that had been made to justify the war and the effectiveness of pre-war planning. During the period, Bush’s popularity dropped from 71% to the low 50% range.

Not being able to win on the battlefield of Iraq led the administration to point to symbolic political victories. A series of elections and referenda were trumpeted as triumphs and, for a time, Bush rebounded.

2004 was different with the summertime filled with domestic politics. Bush, despite his low approval ratings, remained even in the polls against his Democratic challenger. The poor performance of the Kerry campaign allowed Bush to win a narrow victory in November of 2004. But in January of 2005, Bush characteristically overplayed his hand, declaring a mandate for his policies and claiming renewed “political capital” to pursue his agenda.

Disaster struck yet again in the summer of 2005. A bereaved mother who had lost her son in Iraq began a prolonged vigil outside the Crawford, Texas, ranch that the vacationing Bush used as a summer White House. The administration miscalculated, ignoring her challenge for days and allowing her to gain maximum media coverage. The public’s growing unease with the war, catalyzed by this demonstration, pushed the White House into a defensive posture.

By the time the Administration had prepared its response in the form of a series of presidential addresses on the war before military audiences, it was too late: Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Initial indecision and subsequent poor management of this crisis delivered a lethal blow.

The summer of 2006 was no better. During that season, the entire Middle East appeared to be in flames, leaving George Bush’s “Forward March of Freedom” in tatters. In foreign affairs, as in domestic affairs, the administration had clearly lost its ability to control events.

One result of the public’s growing lack of confidence in the administration’s performance was the dramatic turnaround that occurred in the November 2006 elections, with Republicans losing control of both the House and the Senate, putting Bush clearly on the defensive.

And now, in 2007, Bush began the summer at an already low 32% approval rating, and he and his administration are under assault on multiple fronts. My brother, John Zogby of Zogby International, has described the Bush tenure in office as not unlike a free bouncing ball. After its initial bounce, it loses momentum with each succeeding bounce getting smaller, each low point getting lower.

By midsummer, the combination of the administration’s weakness and its consistent miscues has left the country rudderless. With so many irons in the fire, especially overseas, this must be a worrisome situation for allies. When a president loses the confidence of the public, and when the momentum of events in Washington and the world is so clearly moving against the White House, the resulting situation prompts serious concern.

The fatal flaws of the administration have been revealed, most particularly its penchant for overreaching while ignoring reality, and its mismanagement of crises. These have taken their toll. One wonders how the administration will respond to new crises and what steps it will take in a last ditch effort to rebound in the fall.

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