Lame-duck Bush back in the limelight

It has been a busy week for United States President George Bush. He has shuttled across the country, faced a barrage of questions from a hounding press pack and made some tough spending decisions.

But the focus of the action was not a bold new policy initiative or diplomatic mission. Instead, the dramatic upsurge of media interest in Bush has been because of the wedding on Saturday of his daughter, Jenna, in Texas.

For Bush, who is fast becoming the forgotten man of America’s political landscape, it has been a rare moment back in the spotlight. The fact is that for months Bush has been largely irrelevant in American politics.

”He is an extremely lame duck. Nothing he does is really worthy of any attention at this moment,” said Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside. ”It seems like he is just counting down the clock.”

The term ”lame duck” is always given to two-term American presidents in their final year of office. As the political scene shifts to their inevitable successor, it becomes difficult for any president to have a meaningful impact. Simply put: everyone waits for the new man (or woman) to take power.

But for Bush the problem has become particularly acute. He began his second term with a radical domestic agenda to change social security and reform taxes. That was defeated, and then the Democrats won control of Congress, meaning they could stymie any fresh legislation Bush puts forward. At the same time, Bush’s main legacy is the disastrous war in Iraq. That has seen his popularity ratings plunge to historic lows, further reducing his waning political influence.

”He is one of the least popular presidents we have ever had. Even if he had an agenda now, he would not be able to enact it,” said professor Seth Masket of Denver University.

The result has been a surreal situation for much of the past year. Though he remains the most powerful man on Earth and will continue to occupy the Oval Office until January 2009, Bush has been reduced to a marginal figure. In recent weeks his most high-profile appearance was on the TV game show Deal or No Deal. Yet ratings for the episode slumped. That prompted the New York Post tabloid to crow in a headline: ”Bush cameo sinks game show”.

Bush’s toxic popularity ratings mean that he has played almost no role in the Republican election campaign so far. Though the Democrats continually link Bush with the Republican nominee, John McCain, McCain has tried to distance himself from his own president. Indeed, McCain recently launched a blistering attack on Bush’s ”disgraceful” handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Thus shunned even by his own party, Bush has turned to the one area of politics where most lame-duck presidents seek to wield influence: foreign policy. His real focus in recent months has been Middle East diplomacy. The Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has shuttled frequently to the troubled region. In the past five months she has made four trips to Jerusalem and the West Bank, trying to nudge Israelis and Palestinians towards a peace deal.

Bush will visit the region this week on a lengthy trip for him — from Tuesday until Sunday. During that time he will meet Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian leaders.

However, few experts hold out real prospects of something concrete emerging from the trip. Apart from the usual problems of solving a decades-old intractable dispute, Bush is a lame duck in the Middle East, too. ”The problem is that in the Middle East no one sees him as an honest broker after Iraq. So they, too, are waiting for the next president to take office,” said Masket.

That has led to speculation over exactly what Bush will do once he leaves office next year. It is a problem many of his former top aides have already faced. Most of Bush’s closest circle of advisers have left his administration. His political guru, Karl Rove, is now a pundit and columnist. His former Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, has taken up a one-year post at Stanford University. His former CIA director, George Tenet, has joined a secretive New York investment bank, Allen & Company.

”There is no set model for careers after you have been president. He may write a book, he may just want some time off,” said Masket.

However, there is one potential bright spot on Bush’s political horizon. Though his legacy at the moment looks to be two unfinished foreign wars and a failing domestic economy gripped by a collapse in housing prices, revisionist historians may eventually look kindly on him.

”There is bound to be revisionism. In about 10 years someone will come along and write a book saying how marvellous he was,” said Bowler. — Â

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