Tough times ahead for Bush
In addition to lame-duck status, he also faces a hostile Congress.
AN AMERICAN president traditionally attains the status of a lame duck in the last two years of his final term in office.
Mr George W. Bush faces the prospect of a double whammy now. Besides being weakened in the final throes of his presidency, he must also deal with a combative Congress if the Democrats clinch a majority in one or both chambers in the Nov 7 mid-term elections.
With the Democrats having the bully pulpit in Congress, it will be tougher for Mr Bush to push through some of his initiatives in a hostile atmosphere where there could be gridlock in policy-making.
“This administration will be in the wilderness in its last two years if they lose,” a Republican lobbyist told The Straits Times. “He will find it harder dealing with a Congress where the Democrats have long been waiting to exact revenge.”
Indeed, the Democrats are spoiling for a fight, vowing to mount a campaign looking at oversight of the executive branch, especially on Iraq, counter-terrorism and fiscal policy.
According to Mr Norman Ornstein, a leading congressional expert here, this would spark challenges to the executive branch, including requests for information, subpoenas for committee appearances and frequent constitutional confrontations.
“No question we’re going to get much more aggressive investigations and face-offs with the President,” said Mr Ornstein, who is with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based conservative think-tank.
He noted in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs that, for the last six years, the Republican Congress has shied away from criticising its own White House. This trend will reverse once the Democrats seize at least one of the chambers and gain chairmanship of defence and other committees.
President Bush will face a group of Democrat leaders who have promised oversight of the administration, especially on the Iraq war and fiscal policy. They include Ms Nancy Pelosi, the congresswoman from San Francisco, and Mr John Conyers, a Detroit congressman and likely chairman of the Judiciary Committee that might hold hearings on the Patriot Act.
The White House must also contend with Mr Henry Waxman, the southern California representative who would head the government reform committee that will investigate wasteful spending in Iraq.
A senior aide to an influential Republican senator revealed: “The Democrats are getting ready to show us the middle finger. They will have the powers to summon anyone in the administration for an oversight hearing.”
There is a danger of overkill though.
“Sure, the public will support more oversight of what this administration is doing,” said the congressional aide. “But make no mistake, it will become wary if the Democrats turn this into a witch hunt.”
Besides launching investigations, the Democrats would also have powers to advance their own Bills – and attack those put forward by Mr Bush.
Ms Pelosi, who is likely to be House Speaker if the Democrats win, is aiming to address a number of pocketbook issues: raise minimum wages, cut student-loan interest rates and lower drug prices for patients. The Democrats are also intent on blocking bilateral free trade agreements.
There is little chance that a Democrat-led Congress will renew the President’s fast-track authority. Granted in 2002 against a backdrop of bitter congressional debate and ending in July 2007, it gives Mr Bush power to negotiate FTAs without legislative review.
Trade expert Edward Gesser of the Progressive Policy Institute noted: “This administration might just have the time to complete negotiations with Malaysia and South Korea. The Democrats are not enamoured by bilateral FTAs. President Bush will have to go to Congress with multilateral agreements if he wants their support.”
If the Democrats win the Senate it would certainly give them a bigger platform nationally to discuss foreign policy issues.
But Ms Nancy Roman of the Council on Foreign Relations sees little prospect of substantive change in this area. She cites three reasons for this.
First, the executive branch makes foreign policy even if Congress has power of the purse. At the same time, there were tough choices facing both the Republicans and Democrats on issues like Iraq. And, finally, the Democrat Party itself was divided on Iraq.
“I predict high partisanship,” said Ms Roman. “But the policy outcomes will not be dramatically different no matter who’s in charge, not because the parties are working together but because they don’t have a lot of room to manoeuvre on these issues.”
In fact, Mr Bush may compromise and cooperate with the Democrats.
He can draw from the experience of former president Bill Clinton who faced a Republican House and Senate after the 1994 mid-terms. Mr Clinton was forced to resort to a mixture of confrontation and “triangulation” in which he adopted some Republican policies.
But Mr Clinton was just into his first term. The dilemma for Mr Bush is that he is at the tail end of his presidency, and caught in the quagmire of a bloody unpopular war in Iraq.
Mr Bush also has the option of looking for ways to bypass Congress, including resorting to the bully pulpit and trying to rule by fiat by using the Executive Order.
White House spokesman Tony Snow was quoted in the latest issue of Time Magazine as saying: “He told all of us, ‘Put on your track shoes. We’re going to run to the finish’. He’s going to be aggressive on a lot of fronts.”
Clearly, the Bush administration is not going to take things lying down. Even as a lame-duck president, Mr Bush has a legacy to think about. But into the twilight of his presidency, has he left it too late?
IF DEMOCRATS WIN…
“No question we’re going to get much more aggressive investigations and face-offs with the President.”
MR NORMAN ORNSTEIN, a leading congressional expert, on what would happen if the Democrats win control of either chamber of Congress.
“He told all of us, ‘Put on your track shoes. We’re going to run to the finish’. He’s going to be aggressive on a lot of fronts.”
WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN TONY SNOW, referring to how President Bush will act in the last two years of his presidency.