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Lame, But Still Game By: Fred Barnes
The Weekly Standard | Tuesday, April 22, 2008


On the eve of Prime Minister Gordon Brown's visit to Washington last week, a British pollster suggested Brown's meetings with presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain would be more important than his talks with President Bush. The president is "irrelevant," the pollster said, echoing what has become a view widely held in Washington. With only nine months left in his presidency and low approval ratings, Bush lacks political power. He's a lame duck.

In fact, he's not that lame. This is a common misperception about Bush (and a pet peeve of mine). In Washington, the political community and the press tend to dismiss presidents in their final year as powerless. They made this mistake in Bill Clinton's case, and they're making it again now. Bush lacks popularity, but he has plenty of power. And he's committed to using it.

Bush's power--indeed, any president's--comes from the Constitution, not from opinion polls or the number of months left in his White House tenure. He is commander in chief and architect of America's foreign policy. He can use his veto to shape or kill legislation. He can exploit the presidential megaphone to express his views and raise alarms, and his power to issue administrative decrees is significant as well.

Start with Iraq. As commander in chief, Bush defied the Democratic Congress, the political wisdom of Washington, and public opinion in ordering the surge of an additional 30,000 combat troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy. Democrats tried to limit his flexibility on Iraq, but failed.

Now they've given up. Instead of seeking to change Bush's Iraq policy, Democrats plan to tack domestic spending measures onto bills funding the war. When Bush recently announced a pause in troop withdrawals this summer, Democrats complained noisily but could do nothing about it.

Bush has two goals in Iraq. He wants to crush al Qaeda and the insurgency, corral the militias, and establish a reasonably stable elected government. That's his long-term aim. In the near term, he wants to leave Iraq in good enough condition that the next president won't be inclined to pull out of the country precipitously. He wants his successor to conclude, in other words, that Iraq is worth America's support.

During a TV debate last week, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did nothing to encourage hope on this score. They insisted that, if elected, they'd begin withdrawing troops, whatever condition Iraq is in. Bush, however, believes they'd change their mind upon receiving their first intelligence briefing in the Oval Office about threats around the world. I'm not so sure. Still, for now anyway, Bush's power to direct the effort in Iraq is supreme.

Last week, he delivered a speech in the Rose Garden on global warming. He didn't mention a veto. He laid down principles that should be followed in combating climate change and said elected officials should determine the policy to follow, not unelected judges or bureaucrats.

Democrats scoffed. Nonetheless, they must take Bush's view seriously if they want to pass legislation. Bush didn't threaten to veto their favorite remedy of setting an arbitrary cap on carbon emissions and creating a system of trading emission rights. But because he strongly opposes that approach, a veto threat was implicit.

So Bush will play a major role in shaping, or blocking, global warming legislation, just as he did when an economic "stimulus" package was enacted in February. Democrats wanted to spend billions more and extend unemployment benefits. They failed because they needed Bush's signature on the bill.

Though Bush is hardly renowned for his effective use of the bully pulpit, he intends to continue voicing dire concerns about Iran's nuclear weapons program. Economic sanctions have failed to deter Tehran. And Iranian officials have responded to the possibility of an Israeli attack on their nuclear sites by hardening and hiding the plants.

Bush's aim now is more modest: speak out loudly in hopes of influencing Europeans and others to back tougher measures to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. We'll be hearing more of this from the president: "Iran was a threat. Iran is a threat. And Iran will continue to be a threat if they are allowed to learn how to enrich uranium." That's what he said in January.

At one time or another, every president figures out that executive orders are underrated as a tool of White House power. Certainly Bush has. (The media have yet to realize this.) Of course it's true that presidential orders can be revoked by subsequent presidents. But they usually aren't.

Earlier this year, Bush's budget office sent a letter to every federal department barring them from implementing any congressional earmarks not authorized in specific statutory language. These must get explicit White House approval.

The order covered the majority of the thousands of pork-barrel earmarks passed by Congress. Its aim is to stall the implementation of many earmarks, perhaps forever, and to kill many others. Will the next president lift this order, thus prompting more earmarks? Not likely.

For months now, the buzz in Washington has been about Bush's ability to go about his presidential business and remain upbeat and determined. The suspicion is he's simply pretending, since his power is gone. Wrong on both counts.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.


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