Few US presidents can have received the same advice so consistently from so many different quarters as George W. Bush. And few can so consistently have ignored it. Whether from conservative allies on Capitol Hill and in the Weekly Standard, the neo-con house journal, or from liberal critics in the Democratic party and the opinion columns of the New York Times, it has been strikingly similar: overhaul your tired and discredited administration.
Given Mr Bush’s well-advertised disregard for the opinions of those outside his fiercely loyal inner circle, it is not surprising that the president has ignored such counsel. The latest manifestation of his imperviousness occurred at 8.30am on Tuesday when Mr Bush bade farewell to Andrew Card, White House chief of staff since 2001, and welcomed Josh Bolten, head of the office of management and budget.
It is no disrespect to Mr Bolten, who is described as smart and hard-working, to say that Mr Bush passed up an opportunity to begin the revamp his presidency so badly needs. Mr Card was a low-key Bush loyalist who worked hard but was unable to ameliorate Mr Bush’s increasingly inept style of governing. Whether on the big challenges, such as the White House’s inadequate reaction to Hurricane Katrina, or smaller travails, such as Dick Cheney’s accidental shooting of a friend on a quail hunt last month, Mr Card proved unequal to the task.
In the first, Mr Bush compounded the impression of callousness in the face of victims’ suffering by reassuring Michael Brown, then head of the federal disaster agency, that he was doing a “heck of a job”. In the second, Mr Cheney, whose 18 per cent public approval rating is half the level of Mr Bush’s already dismal numbers, was allowed to suppress the news for almost 24 hours. The fall-out was magnified by the decision to divulge the incident quietly to a local Texan newspaper, as if to bypass the national media.
On those and countless other occasions – remember Mr Bush’s “bring ’em on” call to the Iraqi insurgents in 2003? – Mr Card was neither strong nor independent enough to impress a common-sense response on his boss. Both cases also pointed up Mr Bush’s almost reckless loyalty to those around him – in his blind praise of Mr Brown and in the unprecedented autonomy he has granted to the most unpopular vice-president in the country’s history.
That same tendency to return loyalty with interest was what prompted Mr Bush to appoint Mr Bolten to one of the most powerful jobs in Washington. Although considered more of a policy man than his predecessor, Mr Bolten is not the powerful and independent figure that friends and foes alike have been urging the president to appoint.
As if to damn with faint praise, Jon Corzine, the Democratic governor of New Jersey who was Mr Bolten’s boss at Goldman Sachs before they went their separate political ways, singled out one quality possessed by the new White House chief of staff: Mr Bolten was “loyal to a fault”, he said. In the absence of radical action to restore his administration’s tattered credibility, that phrase might well prove to be Mr Bush’s presidential epitaph.
Mr Bush is also the recipient of a second, but related, stream of unsolicited advice from both sides of the political fence: consult as widely as you can. The problems that you face in Iraq, over Iran and on controlling the fiscal deficit, require skill, imagination and a spirit of bipartisanship. It is a strange irony of Mr Bush’s predicament – in which very few of the White House’s proposals stand much chance of reaching the statute books despite a Republican-dominated Congress – that it is not necessarily Mr Bush’s policies that are distrusted by the public but his competence.
Whether it is maintaining a tough stance in the war on terror, the need to create a stable and non-sectarian government in Iraq or the objective of reducing America’s $400bn budget deficit, American opinion may not be out of step with Mr Bush’s priorities. It simply questions his ability to achieve them. There are both positive and negative lessons in this for Mr Bush.
On the plus side, Mr Bush can comfort himself with the fact that America is in many ways a conservative nation that continues to support a muscular US presence globally, particularly in relation to real or perceived threats from the Islamic world – and one that continues, although with growing doubts, to favour a free-trade economy. On the minus side, polls show that the American public now expresses a consistently higher level of mistrust in Mr Bush’s leadership skills than those of any of his recent predecessors, barring Jimmy Carter in the most hapless days of his sole term and Richard Nixon shortly before he was forced from office over Watergate.
Mr Bush does not face imminent ejection but something almost as bad: continuous rejection by members of his own party and the public in the more than two and a half years that remain. Sacking Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, the two figures – other than Mr Bush – most associated with the administration’s disdain for the advice of others, would tear up Mr Bush’s unbroken record of loyalty to his friends. But it would signal loud and clear that he was sincere in wanting to change direction.
While pondering his options, Mr Bush might also ask Mr Bolten, an amateur musician, why he recently changed the name of the rock band in which he plays on weekends. The band was called The Compassionates (presumably after the forgotten tag of Mr Bush’s first campaign – Compassionate Conservatism). Mr Bolten renamed his band Deficit Attention Disorder: another possible epitaph for the Bush years.
The writer is the FT’s Washington commentator