WASHINGTON (AP) – These are dark days for the White House. And they could get darker.
Less than a year after winning re-election by a comfortable margin, President George W. Bush”s approval ratings are at the lowest since he took office in 2001 and he is being whipsawed this week by events, some of his own making.
The U.S. death toll in Iraq hit 2,000 on Tuesday, a fresh reminder of the president”s push to war over weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
A special prosecutor took aim at White House officials in an investigation into the leak of a CIA agent”s identity, a disclosure that may have been part of a campaign to discredit an Iraq war critic. Indictments could come Friday.
An insurrection of the president”s conservative political base forced the withdrawal of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers on Thursday.
Consumer confidence dropped, home sales were down and the number of people who lost their jobs because of Hurricane Katrina climbed above the half-million mark.
"There are times when no matter what you do it seems to blow up in your face, whether it”s self-inflicted or inflicted from the outside," said Democratic consultant Joe Lockhart, who was former President Bill Clinton”s press secretary during the impeachment flap.
In the face of such grim news, Bush is likely to follow the examples of Clinton and other embattled presidents and make a public display of his work ethic.
"The American people expect me to do my job, and I”m going to," Bush said, shrugging off the "background noise" of the CIA leak investigation.
White House officials have said they expect anybody indicted to leave the staff.
On Iraq, the president has given a series of speeches defending his war policies. The approval of a new Iraqi constitution Oct. 15 is one of the few pieces of good news Bush had gotten this month.
The economy has been a baffling issue to Bush and his team. They have not figured out how to convince the public that the economy is doing as well as experts say. It”s a hard sell when pension funds are going bankrupt, health care costs and gasoline prices are soaring and jobs are being shipped overseas.
That leaves the rift with conservatives. The White House hopes that Miers fixed that problem by withdrawing. Bush blamed her demise on a dispute with the Senate over access to White House documents, but that wasn”t half the problem. It was a family fight, an ugly one, between a conservative president and like-minded activists who consider themselves entitled to dictate his Supreme Court pick. They helped him get elected twice. They wanted a tried-and-true conservative on the bench, and Miers didn”t cut it.
With independent and Democratic voters abandoning him in droves, Bush couldn”t afford to make conservatives angry. "The base is his last refuge at this point," said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor. "He”s facing some daunting challenges," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "The way that political leaders move when they are facing challenges is back to their base."
Massachusetts” junior senator, John Kerry, put a more cynical spin on the Miers” withdrawal. "Caught up in a wave of scandal and concerns about the war in Iraq, the president has allowed right-wing interest groups to decide the fate of his Supreme Court nominee rather than stand up to his ultraconservative base," he said.
Kerry would love to see Bush labeled a quick-to-yield politician. Part of the reason Kerry lost to Bush in the 2004 race was that voters said they knew where the president stood even when they disagreed with him, and that he rarely wavered.
Now the president has given up on a woman he said was the most qualified in the nation. Where else has Bush gone wrong? His credibility, an asset just a year ago, was undercut when the Iraq war failed to live up to his promises and it was further damaged by his flat-footed response to Hurricane Katrina, according to strategists in both parties.
Even some Republicans believe that Bush made a mistake at the beginning of the year by spending so much postelection political capital on Social Security reform, an issue that few voters cited as a reason for backing him.
Others point to his staff, a talented and loyal group of fellow Texans and their friends who came into the second term bone-tired and short on fresh ideas. Many helped Bush through the Sept. 11 attacks, two wars and a re-election. Their intense loyalty may have led some advisers to challenge Joseph Wilson”s credibility when he questioned Bush”s evidence on Iraq and nuclear material. The question Fitzgerald was appointed to explore is whether anybody crossed the line and purposely revealed that Wilson”s wife was a spy.
"The bad news tends to breed bad news and oftentimes there is no way to get out of it other than to just wait it out," Lockhart said.
The best thing about bad news is it might get better.