Second-Term Slide

Has the Bush “second-term slide” begun? And if so, what will be the consequences of a weakened President?

Second-term Administrations frequently begin strong and then encounter difficulties, either from scandals, dwindling public support and exhaustion, or a failure to deliver on an ambitious program. Lyndon Johnson (though technically not a two-term President because he completed the first term of John F. Kennedy) confronted growing anger over the war in Vietnam and the challenges it posed to his efforts to deal with civil rights and the “war on poverty.” Richard Nixon was done in by Watergate. Ronald Reagan faced the Iran-Contra scandal, and Bill Clinton was tormented by a sexual indiscretion.

Rarely, however, do these second-term troubles begin so early on. Equally problematic is the fact that Bush is facing challenges on so many fronts, all at the same time.

This week’s headlines were the same as last week’s: growing speculation that top Bush and Cheney aides may be indicted in the Valerie Plame affair; new questions about the President’s controversial nomination of a White House aide to the Supreme Court; former House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s booking on felony charges in a Texas court; growing evidence that conservatives are no longer happy with the President’s stewardship of the federal budget and continuing fallout from the Administration’s handling of the disaster named Katrina.

All of this has left the White House reeling and somewhat defensive. In this weakened state, the Administration finds itself struggling to provide leadership in its many ambitious ventures into foreign affairs: managing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; making progress in the war in Iraq; confronting their “Axis of Evil,” and bringing democracy to the broader Middle East.

All of this could be difficult in the best of times, but in the worst of times. . .

Beleaguered Administrations can’t make bold moves or take dramatic initiatives, especially in areas where they lack strong public support. And so it was a weakened Bush who met last week with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Some observers correctly noted that Bush took a strong balanced tone in his public and private remarks with Abbas. He countered each challenge to the Palestinians, with a challenge to the Israeli side. Displaying genuine warmth and strong words of support for the Palestinian President, Bush even defied the Israelis on one important issue, appearing to side with the Palestinian Authority’s preferred approach to dealing with the inclusion of Hamas in the Palestinian political process.

But where Bush faltered was in failing to put teeth or timetables into his promised Palestinian state. Bush began this process promising to spend his political capital to create a state during his time in office. Lacking that capital, the state, it now appears, may wait until after 2008, because in order to move the Israelis, the President would have to confront the Sharon government and his Party’s own hardliners in Congress–”tasks which prove too difficult, given his current state.

Much the same in Iraq. The Iraqi constitution has apparently passed, but without any “mission accomplished” fanfare. Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faced challenging questions about US goals and accomplishments. Backed into a corner, Rice struck back, using uncharacteristically harsh language to describe the difficulties the Administration faces in the Middle East. On four occasions she described the region as malignant–””the malignancy that is the Middle East;” “the malignant waters of the Middle East,” etc. While the intention of this anti-Arab rhetorical excess may have been designed to silence critics and win support from the Senators, it left some observers scratching their heads.

Even the long awaited trial of the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein turned out to be more of a fiasco and public relations nightmare than the triumph it was intended to be.

Add to that the fact that Iran now appears emboldened and winning support from some key international players, and the depth of the Administration’s problems become all too clear.

Maybe the one gift handed to the White House during this difficult week came in the form of the release of the United Nations report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Damning and suggestive of Syrian involvement, the report many give the Administration needed leverage to build international consensus to take some action against Damascus. But what action? And what might be the consequences of any action will weigh heavily on all concerned, given the general state of affairs in the region? With stakes so high, given the huge foreign policy agenda launched during Bush’s first term, the consequences of this second term slide can be dramatic.