Adam Ash

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Watching Bush screw up things for his pathetic last two years

1. Is Bush Over? -- by Howard Kurtz/Washington Post

Six months after his party lost both houses of Congress, Bill Clinton was reduced to declaring at a news conference that he was still relevant.

The next day, the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed. Clinton regained his footing and cruised to reelection the following year, his relevance never again in doubt -- even after his impeachment.

These days, many in the media seem to be writing off President Bush.

"The American people basically fired George Bush in the last election," writes New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. "We're now just watching him clean out his desk."

"A lot of Americans consider this presidency over," says CNN's Bill Schneider.

"If America were a parliamentary democracy, we would have a no-confidence vote and a new prime minister by spring," writes New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin.

Are these and other pundits giving us the unvarnished truth, that we are witnessing the historic collapse of a presidency? Or is this the triumph of quick-draw, poll-driven journalism?

"It's a predictable bit of conventional wisdom," White House spokesman Tony Snow says in an interview. He insists that Bush can make progress on such issues as energy and immigration, "and he still has the bully pulpit. A lot of these narratives about 'the president is a lame duck' assume nothing is going to change politically, anywhere in the world, in the next two years."

But the gibes keep on coming. "If we had a straight dictatorship," writes the New Republic's Jonathan Chait, "Bush would long ago have been dragged out of the White House either by an angry mob or by disgruntled generals." (Not that he's in favor of either.)

Chait agrees in an interview that the president still has power, but notes: "Psychologically, it does feel that people are starting to move past Bush. No one has changed his mind about Bush in the last two years. It's kind of boring to write about him anymore because he's so unchanging."

Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standard's executive editor, says Bush will concentrate on such areas as tightening control of regulatory policy to end-run a Democratic Congress. "The Republicans learned in the '90s -- and the press should have learned as well -- that presidents have great inherent powers," he says. But "Nancy Pelosi at the moment is a more interesting story than George Bush. She's new, she's attractive and she has an agenda."

The media, as always, are mesmerized by polls. When Bush was riding high in the "Mission Accomplished" days of 2003, some of the coverage was almost giddy. If Bush's current approval ratings were at 50 percent, his media portrayal would look very different. With the president having sunk as low as 28 percent in a CBS News survey, it is all too easy to dismiss him, even as he mounts an escalation of the war in Iraq.

That war, of course, is the reason why the mainstream media see no possibility of Bush bouncing back. Things are a mess in Iraq; the country has turned against the war; and few journalists think the "surge" is going to work. Therefore, the reasoning goes, Bush will continue to sink into the quagmire of the war he chose to wage.

There's little question that Bush has never been weaker politically. He got no traction from the State of the Union (as measured by the almighty polls). His domestic proposals seem to have sparked little interest, at least from the press. Here he is talking about income inequality, global warming and tougher auto mileage standards -- all typically Democratic themes -- and the journalistic reaction is a barely suppressed yawn. He's yesterday's news.

But with Bush constitutionally entitled to two more years in the White House, it is risky for journalists to declare him a marginal figure, even if they are far more absorbed in covering the race to succeed him.

Other unpopular war presidents have staggered to the ends of their terms -- Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson come to mind -- and Bush may do the same. But because Iraq is now widely viewed as having been an unnecessary personal crusade on Bush's part, there seems to be an extra element of derision in the political commentary, especially from the left.

Bush's father recently vented his frustrations with the coverage. "It's one thing to have an adversarial . . . relationship -- hard-hitting journalism. It's another when the journalists' rhetoric goes beyond skepticism and goes over the line into overt, unrelenting hostility and personal animosity," the former president said.

Actually, even some of the journalists who are especially aggressive in their coverage of Bush like him in private settings, where the president has a joshing manner and enjoys handing out nicknames. But professional resentment may still be behind some of the increasingly negative coverage. "In the press corps," Chait says, "there's a little bit of a realization that they had been played."

From Iraq, where the media fell down on the WMD debate, to Bush's 2000 campaign persona as a compassionate conservative, many journalists now believe they were led astray. That has given an extra edge to their stories and columns on Bush being out of touch and has fueled an effort to vindicate their darker picture of the war. In short, the mainstream media no longer give this president the benefit of the doubt.

2. If the Iraq War Were a Corporation
How a real CEO president would turn it around.
By Daniel Gross/Slate

President Bush and his Republicans allies have long argued that government should be run more like a business. (At times, as a troubling article in the New York Times about outsourcing notes, it seems as if the MBA president wants business to run the whole government.) And when it comes to the government initiative on which Bush has staked his presidency and legacy -- the Iraq war -- the similarities between public policy and a publicly held corporation are more than superficial. The Iraq war resembles nothing so much as a Fortune 500 firm. But not an outperforming, market-beating one like Google. No, if the Iraq war were a corporation, it would be Ford Motor Co.

Consider: Each enterprise is run by an upbeat, underperforming, Ivy League-educated, baby-boomer dynast. Each is failing in the marketplace. Ford's sales fell 19 percent from January 2006 to January 2007. According to Gallup, approval of the way things are going in Iraq has fallen 18 percentage points in the past year.

Both have found themselves under investigation for apparently improper disclosure of information vital to stakeholders -- Ford by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Bush administration by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

Both are in the midst of a restructuring effort that involves a new executive team. Since the fall, Bush has fired his defense secretary, the war's chief operating officer, and replaced him with a respected executive, Robert Gates. Last fall, William Clay Ford Jr. fired himself as CEO and hired Boeing executive Alan Mulally as his replacement. At both companies, the change at the top didn't really replace the executive on whom ultimate responsibility lies, since Ford is still chairman and Bush is still president. In fact, the entity's own bylaws prevent the real boss from being fired. In Ford's case, the family controls stock entitling it to 40 percent of the votes. In Bush's case, the Constitution provides that the executive's term will run through the end of 2008.

Both are using the same lame phrase to rebrand their latest turnaround strategy. Ford unveiled its Way Forward for the car company's North American business in January 2006. A year later, President Bush unveiled the New Way Forward in Iraq. And as they seek new strategies, both have been undermined by cheap competition from the East -- Ford by Japanese and Korean automakers and Bush by Iraqi insurgents and Iran.

Both found their credibility dashed when their own predictions and benchmarks were not met. Throughout 2005, as its market position deteriorated, Ford had to back away from its earnings guidance, first in April and then again in June. And for nearly four years, virtually everybody who has offered specific numerical guidance on any aspect of the war has been made to look a fool, whether the guidance was related to the cost , the number of troops needed, or the duration of the insurgency. Remember Dick Cheney's 2005 "last throes " bit? Or President Bush's 2006 State of the Union, in which he predicted: "As we make progress on the ground, and Iraqi forces increasingly take the lead, we should be able to further decrease our troop levels."

At Ford, the hereditary CEO learned a pretty tough lesson: Don't offer guidance when you can't control the results. As part of its Way Forward, Ford announced in January 2006 that it would no longer provide specific figures on expected earnings. Talking about 2007, for example, Ford will only say that it expects North American operations to post a loss. As part of his New Way Forward, President Bush has similarly abjured dates and dismissed the very notion of a timetable. Discussing 2007, he would only say, "The year ahead will demand more patience, sacrifice, and resolve."

There's a final similarity. When the main business strategy has faltered in the short term, executives at both entities have tried to keep investors focused on the long term. At year-end, Ford urged shareholders to look beyond what was sure to be a tough 2007 to a bright 2008. In January, President Bush told USA Today that Iraq will be an issue for the next president to deal with. The budget he presented today contains Iraq funding for fiscal 2008 and 2009 -- and nothing beyond that.

Then again, that kick-it-forward strategy is not exactly working for him, either. Imagine a CEO announcing that the problems in the firm's most important business unit will ultimately be a matter for the next CEO. The shareholders wouldn't wait two years before voting in a new boss.

Bush might also do well to heed some of the positive examples being set by Ford. As it seeks to right the ship, the company is scaling back its global ambitions -- Ford is no longer pursuing market share at the expense of profits -- and taking pains to wean itself from imported petroleum. And it has proved willing to sit down with long-standing adversaries (the United Auto Workers) to iron out a deal that could allow both sides to move forward. If only CEO Bush were so creative about his problems!

3. Know When to Hold 'Em, When to Fold 'Em -- by Andrew Bard Schmookler/ Baltimore Sun

Tell me, why is it that a course of action that is regarded as folly in virtually every other comparable endeavor is seen as virtue and wisdom when America wages war?

In poker, do we call a man a "defeatist" who, when he sees he has a losing hand, folds rather than increasing his bet? No, we recognize that every good poker player knows better than to throw good money after bad.

In games of strategy such as chess and Go, what do we call a player who ignores the signs that a part of the board is escaping his control and instead continues to invest his moves in that lost territory? Soon enough, we will call him the loser of the game.

In business, what do we call an executive who continues to bank his fortunes on a losing marketing strategy rather than cut his losses? We call him a bad businessman.

But when the United States gets embroiled in some ill-conceived, ill-executed, losing war - such as Vietnam a generation ago and Iraq today - Americans are supposed to see it as sign of weakness, rather than wisdom, to read the handwriting on the wall and act accordingly. Why is that?

It is supposedly "defeatist" to admit when something has failed. It is condemned as a sign of a lack of manhood to confront reality and cope with it.

If either Vietnam or Iraq had been a matter of national survival for the United States, "never give up" might make sense. But what sense can it make when the arenas of America's ill-fated military ventures are just small parts of a much larger global chessboard in which a whole variety of interests are at stake? Just as the poker player with a bad hand saves his chips for the hands to come, and the Go player who has been outflanked on one part of the board will redirect his attack to another part, so also a prudent nation, with global responsibilities and interests, will maintain a proper perspective on any given arena of action.

Even if it is granted that such things as "national honor" and "demonstration of will" are factors in a great power's standing in the world, neither of these can be so weighty as to justify exercises in futility. Can it reasonably be argued that the enemies of the U.S. will be more respectful and afraid of the U.S. if, in the name of national honor, it persists in its folly rather than demonstrating its ability to adjust to realities and maintain strategic perspective?

With President Bush's most recent call for yet another blunder, it is imperative that Americans grasp the real dangers of "defeatism." What we should worry about is not the mindset that recognizes and adapts to the reality of failure when it is a fait accompli. The defeatism that should worry us is the mindset that is at war with reality, that loses perspective and that insists on magnifying a defeat into a larger disaster than it needs to be.

(Andrew Bard Schmookler has recently launched his website devoted to understanding the roots of America’s present moral crisis and the means by which the urgent challenge of this dangerous moment can be met. Dr. Schmookler is also the author of such books as The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (SUNY Press) and Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America’s Moral Divide (M.I.T. Press). He also conducts regular talk-radio conversations in both red and blue states. Email to:


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