WASHINGTON — The White House wants the American public to think it's on the rebound, scoring important triumphs in Iraq and North Korea and on domestic spying while taking tough stands on oil drilling and relief for homeowners.
The White House, the experts and the polls say, however, is wrong. President Bush hasn't begun a comeback.
"All this is pretty much a lot of noise. He's going out with a whimper," said Erwin Hargrove, presidential scholar at Vanderbilt University and the author of "The Effective President."
Adam Warber, professor of political science at Clemson University, had similar thoughts.
"It's very difficult for him now. His public approval is so poor, he doesn't really have a lot of political capital," Warber said. Congress is run by Democrats reluctant to give Bush any domestic victories, and his approval ratings have remained at or near a dismal 30 percent for about a year.
Bush is the nation's fifth lame duck since the 22nd Amendment limited presidents to two terms, beginning with Harry Truman's successor in 1952. One was Richard Nixon, who resigned because of Watergate-related scandals 19 months into his second term.
The others left office with strong approval ratings. Bill Clinton's was 59 percent in a July 2000 Gallup poll. Ronald Reagan's number when he left office was 64 percent. Dwight D. Eisenhower hit 59 percent approval just before stepping down.
Bush's achievements, which are fueling the White House PR machine, flow from his recent tendency to compromise more on national security issues.
In recent weeks Bush:
- Discussed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki what the White House called "a general time horizon" for cutting the number of American troops in Iraq. Bush said he wasn't endorsing timetables, which he's long opposed.
- Took North Korea, which he once labeled part of an "axis of evil," off the list of terrorism sponsors and loosened trade sanctions after it agreed to provide details of its nuclear program.
- Won congressional approval of $162 billion for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, though only after including new college aid for military veterans that he'd opposed.
- Won his bid to renew the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, including the controversial provision that could allow immunity for telecommunications firms that participated in warrantless wiretaps.
- Ended the executive ban on drilling off most U.S. coastlines.
- Tried to reassure the public, in his first news conference since April, that he understood their economic pain and was working to ease it.
Bush was upbeat recently as he recalled his recent string of accomplishments.
"People say, 'Aw man, you're running out of time. Nothing's going to happen,' " he said.
He rattled off his list, and looked ahead..
"What can we get done?" he asked. "We can get good housing legislation done. We can get good energy legislation done. We can get trade bills done. And there's plenty of time to get action with the United States Congress."
But outside the White House, few were as optimistic.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dismissed Bush's energy policies, saying, "Really, the president's done nothing." His call for more drilling, Reid said, "Underlines and underscores that the main organization he's trying to help are the oil companies."
Congress needs to approve any end to the drilling ban, and with Democratic leaders opposed, that's unlikely.
There are more ominous signs for Bush that his power remains diluted. This week, Congress overrode his veto of Medicare legislation, and in the House of Representatives, Republicans, who fear a rout in November's elections, put some polite distance between themselves and the White House.
"You want the president involved, but in the context of the election, he's not on the ballot," said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House chief deputy Republican whip. "Our candidates are on the ballot."
Next week, Congress is expected to consider help for faltering housing markets, including a rescue plan for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Some conservative Republicans are wary, saying the bill could become costly to taxpayers.
Passage is expected, but it won't come easily, nor will Bush find his path smooth elsewhere. Analysts say that unless the president's approval rating jumps — unlikely as long as the economy wobbles and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars continue — his clout is likely to remain diminished.
"It's not clear he's turned anything around, so the current view of him will probably endure for a while," said Bruce Buchanan, professor of government at the University of Texas.
The best Bush can do is keep trying to pile up victories, keep "trying to win the things he needs to win," said Tim Blessing, co-director of the Presidential Performance Study at Alvernia College in Pennsylvania.
Foreign policy is probably his best bet, since, as he showed with North Korea, he can effect change more quickly. And bold steps are often likely to get at least tacit political support, Blessing said, if only because "no senator or congressman wants to go home and appear weak."
But few expect any major domestic-policy breakthroughs or any major Democratic concessions in the months ahead.
"Since it's an election year, and you have a Democratic Congress, you're just not going to see a lot of policy initiatives going anywhere," Warber said. "The president is in a bind."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008