By JAMES P. PINKERTON
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
George W. Bush has big problems. Fortunately for him, his opponents have bigger problems.
Recently, Gallup released a poll showing the president's approval rating at 44 percent and his disapproval rating at 51 percent. That finding can be seen two ways: On the one hand, it's not good that Bush, for the first time, is suffering majority disapproval. On the other, this is his last term in office, anyway.
So while the president has gained some legislative victories lately -- a transportation bill, an energy bill, the Central American Free Trade Agreement -- those were mostly low-yield affairs, the subject of heavy compromise, with little galvanic energy. Meanwhile, his signature domestic policy initiative, "personal accounts" for Social Security, seems dead. And, his own Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, announced he would support the stem-cell bill Bush opposes.
Overseas, the situation is also problematic. Fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan grinds on, albeit at a relatively low level -- neither are the Battle of the Bulge. In Baghdad, the Shia-dominated government is moving toward a pro-Iranian theocracy. At the same time, the other "axis of evil" countries, Iran and North Korea, seem determined to pursue their nuclear ambitions. And Islamic radicalism threatens to overturn the pro-U.S. status quo in Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
But Bush's foes aren't doing any better. Saddam Hussein still is in jail. And many leading Bush antagonists on the world stage -- Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder and Kofi Annan -- are on their last legs. Indeed, two huge institutional rivals to U.S. power, the European Union and the United Nations, are both in disarray.
So the John Bolton saga is emblematic of the Bush's-enemies-have-bigger-problems-than-he-does phenomenon. After five months of effort, Bolton was humiliatingly denied confirmation as U.N. ambassador by the Republican-controlled Senate. Yet he still got the job through a temporary appointment, thus allowing him a year and a half to torment his enemies in New York City.
On the home front, Bush is again blessed with weak adversaries. The top Democrats -- Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean -- have not proven particularly effective in rallying the "loyal opposition." Reid is canny enough as an inside pol to block many of Bush's programs, but he is not a strong national spokesman. As for Pelosi, she is simply a stereotypical liberal; the American people do not want to be led by a San Francisco Democrat.
As for Dean, he has been a disappointment as party leader. He is too strident for the party establishment -- fund-raising is down -- yet not strident enough for the activists.
Looking ahead, one can see Bush has two big assets and one looming potential liability.
The first asset is the economy: Despite war and high oil prices, the economy is growing strongly -- a reminder that tax cuts work. No wonder the Democrats are keeping quiet about their own tax-increase plans.
The second asset is the nomination of John Roberts for the Supreme Court. Democrats are examining 75,000 pages of documents and demanding more. And it's possible they'll excavate some "gotcha" item. But much more possible is that the Democrats, through knee-jerk hostility to a religion-minded cultural conservative, will convince a critical mass of the country that the onetime party of Al Smith and John F. Kennedy has become, for lack of a better phrase, the Catholic-bashing party.
As for Bush's liability, it's scandal. Washington is abuzz with rumors about who might be indicted in the Valerie Plame case -- and who might "sing." It's in the nature of second-term presidencies to be reactive in the face of scandal. Lacking the imperative of seeking re-election, White Houses cling to scandal-tarred figures -- until it's too late.
So yes, Bush has problems. But he's still president, leader of the majority party, and commander in chief -- that makes him one of a kind in this world.
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service