Who’d have thought it possible even a month ago? President Bush is getting his mojo back.
The president just had the best week of his second term, perhaps of his entire presidency – and the end of the investigation of Karl Rove, which would have been the headline grabber not long ago, had little to do with it.
Instead, the president’s brilliantly conceived and executed trip to Baghdad – giving exactly the right boost at the right time to new Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – capped off seven days that included the forming of a full Iraqi Cabinet and the success of the U.S. military in locating, bombing and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the sadistic Jordanian-born insurgency leader that Osama bin Laden once called the “prince of Iraq.”
Equally significant, the night Zarqawi died, American forces staged 17 raids on insurgent targets. By Monday, they had launched 140 more. On the day of the president’s visit, 75,000 troops fanned out over Baghdad, ordered to clear the Iraqi capital of the violence and anarchy that has plagued it for months.
So much activity in such a short time represented a strategic break from the recent past. For more than a year, though perhaps for different reasons, President Bush struggled with the problem President Abraham Lincoln faced before he named Ulysses Grant to run the Union Army.
Lincoln wanted a general whose strategy was hot, relentless pursuit – and changed senior officers until he found one. In Iraq, the daily news of roadside bombs and soldiers’ deaths had made our top brass look as though its only tactic was the defensive patrol. Now it is clear the Coalition forces have taken the offensive and are determined to keep it.
All this good news is not just a product of good luck. The president’s resuscitation of his administration is proving a transformative success on the domestic as well as the international front. The appointments of Office of Management and Budget head Josh Bolten as White House chief of staff, Fox News anchor Tony Snow as press secretary and Goldman Sachs CEO Hank Paulson as Treasury Secretary reflect new energy and a new sense of purpose in a previously listless government.
Snow took the least substantive job, but had the most immediate impact. His gracious handling of the daily debate of the pressroom gives the administration a more comfortable face – and a highly astute one. As a former head of White House speechwriting, he understands how his words play with all constituencies inside and outside of the government, not just the media. The Bush press relations now have the feel of an administration confidently in charge.
Meanwhile, the new chief of staff has started moving economic policy back to the right road. The president’s post-election drop in popularity was closely linked to frustration among Republican voters with soaring federal spending and failure to make the 2003 tax cut permanent. Since Bolten took over, the tax cuts have been extended. And his elevation reflects a White House that has heard its base’s anger about spending – at OMB, Bolten had pushed to zero out more than 91 federal programs and cut non-defense discretionary spending in the last two fiscal years.
The Paulson appointment adds momentum to the lower-taxes, lower-spending agenda. Commentators have focused on Paulson’s knowledge of the global economy, and China in particular. Less recognized is his firm’s role as a major backer of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. His statement at the announcement of his appointment indicated sensitivity to the central place of entrepreneurship in our economy.
Beyond that, both Bolten and Paulson bring a key miss- ing ingredient to the admin- istration’s talent pool. As veterans of investment banking, both (especially Paulson) are deeply experienced, high-stakes negotiators.
And poor negotiating strategy may be the root of the president’s domestic-policy troubles. The administration has shown a naive preference for pre-cooked deals – getting congressional Republicans and Democrats agreed to a proposal before submitting legislation. The same bargaining strategy set up the president’s father for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge more than a decade ago – and has produced no better results since. It has foreclosed bringing the presidential veto into play and last year kept the president’s men from putting forward their own Social Security reform package.
So with stunning new momentum abroad and a new team at home, President Bush is taking control of the Washington agenda again. Strong, effective action is what the American people look for in all their presidents. It appears that Bush has decided to give the people what they want – now and in the months to come.