Accountability, realism key to presidency

Some of my Democrat friends are quietly chortling as President Bush sinks in opinion polls and is battered day after day by news from New Orleans and Iraq.
To them Bush is the president who never should have been appointed president by the Supreme Court and the commander in chief who recklessly and illegally ordered our troops into Iraq. His presidency, say some commentators, started with the attacks of Sept. 11 and ended with the winds and floods of Katrina.
But a ruined presidency is the last thing our country needs. Bush has more than three years left in his term. Just recall the troubles that followed both Nixon's and Clinton's impeachment fights. There was no way to find a decent way out of Vietnam after Nixon left office, and Clinton was so diverted and weakened by his Monica Lewinsky troubles that his ability to fight terrorism was undercut.
Strong president
If Bush's plan for Iraq has any chance of success, he must be viewed as a strong, effective president. Weakness here will only embolden the insurgents. And the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast will take effective, disciplined leadership with a potentially balky Congress.
What will it take for Bush to avoid becoming a three-year lame duck? Accountability and realism.
Bush took a step in the right direction in the accountability category this week when he took responsibility for the failures of the federal government to react more quickly and effectively once Katrina hit. But it is one of the few times he has acknowledged responsibility for anything going wrong in his administration. The officials who told him rebuilding Iraq would be a piece of cake have only gone on to better positions, not been fired. The man in charge of rebuilding Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is still in charge of the Pentagon.
Bush announced Thursday night a massive rebuilding and aid program for New Orleans and the gulf states. That's fine and as it should be. However, Bush must demonstrate a grasp of economic realities. There already are Republicans balking at the multibillion-dollar price tag. They suggest cutting other programs. But Bush has cut the federal budget so drastically to accommodate his tax cuts for the wealthy that there isn't much left to cut that will not have real consequences. Even the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, made that point this week.
Budget analysts with the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington have proposed cutting NASA's budget by half, slashing energy research and subsidies (even in the wake of skyrocketing gasoline prices) and cutting billions from the Army Corps of Engineers (including projects such as the improvement of levees to protect New Orleans) and from home security grants (even while we see how ill-prepared officials were for Katrina). This is clearly counterproductive, and Bush must stand up to such ideas.
There also is concern in the Congress that all this extra spending is going to send the deficit through the roof. But given the negative, possibly devastating impact on oil production in the Gulf of Mexico caused by Katrina, the additional spending now will help stimulate a severely damaged economy in the region and help it to recover.
Economic fantasy
The real problem with the economy is in the longer term, as the already-approved Bush tax cuts take effect just as baby boomers are retiring in large numbers. Bush would be well advised to deal with economic reality instead of economic fantasy and postpone those cuts even as he is stimulating the economy in the short term.
X Klurfeld is the Newsday editorial page editor. Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.

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