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Jewish World Review August 22, 2002 / 14 Elul, 5762

Michael Kelly

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The president's slipping grip | The Economist magazine -- which endorsed George W. Bush for president, and which stands almost alone among Europe's best papers as a consistent friend to the United States -- headlined a recent article "The Disappearing Presidency." Someone might want to boil those three words down to a length suitable for the president's attention span and stick it under his nose.

This has been a bad summer for the Bush presidency -- needlessly, irresponsibly, dangerously so, a summer of willfully lost ground. The administration began the season with two great goals: to push successfully forward into the next major phase of the war on terrorism and to restore national and international confidence in the American economy. It ends the season having made things considerably worse in both cases.

Bush took office at a curiously mixed moment in history. He followed an administration whose war-room approach to governance focused (like a laser, as they used to say) on winning today's evening news and next year's elections. Bush inherited tomorrow: a bubble prosperity built on fraud and greed and stupidity encouraged by eight years of mindless cheerleading for the grand New Economy and a phony peace built on eight years of determined failure (e.g., Iraq, the Middle East "peace process," al Qaeda) to address dangerous realities.

But Bush also assumed power at a time when, the Cold War dust having settled, it had become clear that America's might in both military and economic terms was by an unprecedented order of magnitude dominant across the globe.

So, on Jan. 20, 2001, Bush gained responsibility for disasters to come not of his making. But he also inherited a historic opportunity not of his making. Through the handling of these coming crises, the new president would have a chance to exploit America's emergent position in the world to do what both the first President Bush and President Clinton had in their diffidence failed to do: create a new -- richer, safer, freer -- world order.

It is not clear that Bush would have grasped both the peril and the promise of his moment had reality not been forced on him by Sept. 11. But he certainly did then, and he reshaped his presidency to rise to the requirements of what was -- it was suddenly obvious -- one of the great and awful hinge moments of history.

This summer, that somehow got lost. As August ends in days a dog would deny, Bush's control of his presidency seems to be slipping more and more away.

On the war, the don't-get-involved chorus has taken control of the stage and gains in voice daily, singing nonsense loudly ("Poor little Iraq; what did it ever do to us?"). The true isolationists of the Republican Party are hitting the op-ed pages with the usual tut-tuts about Grave Dangers and Responsible Consensus. These people (not to name names, Colin Powell and Lawrence Eagleburger and Brent Scowcroft) have been wrong in their big thinking -- wrong morally, practically, strategically -- just about every time they have thought big. Theirs is the philosophy, if it can be called that, that helped get us where we are, by persuading the first President Bush to end the first war against Iraq un-won.

Why does anyone listen to them at all? Because they are speaking in the vacuum created by the president's refusal to wage a coherent campaign to win public -- and, let's force the issue, congressional -- approval for the war.

And as to the second big job of the summer, restoring the American economy? To date, the big attempt at convincing the world that the American president was, you betcha, on top of the situation has been an embarrassingly phony and amateurish media event, an imitation-Clinton (which is like ersatz-ersatz) "economic summit" held near the vacationing Bush's Texas ranch. The president managed to show up for 20 minutes at each of the conference's four sessions and (barely) not fall asleep. Sometimes doing something is even worse than doing nothing at all.

The first President Bush lost his job because the American public came to think he didn't really care much about doing it. His son is starting to look a lot like a chip off the old 9-iron. If he loses his job for the same reason, that is tough on the Bushes but of no personal concern to the rest of us.

But if the president loses control of his direction of the nation's security and the nation's wealth and the nation's future standing in the world, and if he loses it through what seems like sheer can't-be-botheredness -- well, that would be pretty unforgivable, wouldn't it?

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Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

© 2002, Washington Post Co.