Talk about surprises.
Tonight George W. Bush delivers his final State of the Union address under astonishing circumstances. Last January, almost unanimously, the smart money prophesized that 2007 would mark the President’s effective demise. His party had just lost control of both houses of Congress. Iraq looked like an irretrievable disaster. Mr. Bush’s popularity was approaching depths to which few presidents had ever gone before. His presidency was all but over, the savants were sure.
They could not have been more wrong.
Instead of finding himself out of cards by now, the President goes into tonight’s address holding an amazingly strong hand.
The success of the surge in Iraq is a big part of why. The President shoved all his chips in on the strategy and his bet paid off – far more than anyone, probably including himself, expected. He did it against the united resistance of Congress’ newly installed leadership, all of whom wanted to force upon him a timetable for bringing the troops home. And he did it despite polling numbers that would have had his immediate predecessor racing to bomb an empty aspirin factory and clear out.
As Fred Barnes has detailed in the current Weekly Standard, in the early days of consideration, the surge faced the skepticism even of most senior uniformed officers. Yet the President listened to these officers and adjusted. Then he cajoled and convinced. Soon he had developed a consensus in the military around his strategy. Where he felt he had to replace officers, he made sure none was humiliated. All departed command with honor. This is leadership of the highest order, and its success had a lot to do with the president’s parallel 2007 success in the Congress.
When they took over Congress, the Democrats announced they would paralyze the Administration with investigations, even as they forced on the President a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. But as the President’s new Iraqi policies started to work, this scorched earth approach became less and less acceptable to the public. Congress’ popularity sank below the President’s. Before long Mr. Bush found himself able to stop most Congressional actions he wanted to stop and win most legislative battles he decided to fight. Achieved despite his own low poll numbers, it was a dazzling performance.
It has been capped off in the last few weeks with the forging of a consensus around the Administration’s stimulus program. The subprime crisis is just the latest in a series of potential economic catastrophes that have pounced without warning on the country during the Bush presidency. From the bursting of the late Clinton-era tech bubble just as Mr. Bush took office, to Enron and related financial scandals rooted in the excesses of the prior decade, to one of the worst natural disasters in American history hitting an area governed by the least competent city-state government pairing in the nation, to the current crisis, the Bush Administration has had to confront an unprecedented series of economic surprises.
The President’s current economic team is undoubtedly his best. They have approached the current market turmoil with remarkable steadiness. Perhaps in part for that reason, they have managed to change the talk in Congress from confrontation to compromise – with passage of the Administration’s stimulus plan looking assured.
So as he steps into the well of the House of Representatives tonight, the President will represent what the American people have been telling pollsters for some time that they most want – a leader who doesn’t look at the polls but at the national interest, who acts accordingly with strength and confidence and, again and again in the past year, whose judgment has been vindicated.
With this record, he has a chance at an even stronger 2008 –- with tonight’s speech kicking things off.
A year ago, who would have guessed it possible?