(photo credit: AP)
The George Bush who greeted the press in the Rose Garden on Wednesday was a different George Bush from the one Americans are used to seeing these days. He was cheerful, upbeat and happy to take questions from reporters. This may not be surprising, given the good week he'd had - with the killing of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, his visit to Baghdad, the new Iraqi unity government and the fact that his closest adviser, Carl Rove, will not be prosecuted in the Valerie Plame leak scandal, all of which sent a fresh breeze into the White House.
But public opinion polls made it clear that the president will need a lot more than a few good news cycles to get over the crisis his administration has been undergoing. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll on Wednesday showed Bush rising to an unimpressive 37 percent approval rating, and a 58% disapproval one. Though these numbers are an improvement over the 29% low he reached in the early spring, they nevertheless indicate that the American people still basically don't trust Bush to lead the way.
Monthly approval ratings for a second-term president are not as important as they are for one running for reelection, but they shouldn't be dismissed. A weak president cannot push through his agenda and finds it difficult to get Congress - or even lawmakers from his own party - to back him. For Bush, this could mean bad news where domestic policy is concerned, though at the moment, domestic issues are at the bottom of the priority list.
One result of the recent polls that should really bother the president's advisers is the central role Iraq plays in the minds of Americans. It has always been the case that US voters care little about foreign policy. This changed somewhat in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when terrorism at home became an issue of concern for Americans. But in the past year, there has been a dramatic shift, and Iraq became the number one issue in all polls, the latest of which indicated that more than half of the American people consider the situation in Iraq to be troubling.
What this means is that Bush has only one way of regaining his popularity - showing success in Iraq. This won't be easy.
EVEN AFTER the killing of Zarqawi, more than half of the American public doubts that there will be any successful outcome to the war in Iraq, a war most Americans now believe was a mistake. For Bush to turn the picture around, he will need a significant change on the ground, not a mere photo-op in Baghdad. And he seems to realize it.
In statements following Zarqawi's killing, Bush was cautious, stressing that the goal of zero violence will not be reached in the near future. For his critics, it was a chance to compare him to the president who, three years ago, stood on board an aircraft carrier under a banner that read: "Mission accomplished."
Bush, however, is not only adopting more modest rhetoric. He is also trying to take genuine action on the ground to effect change in Iraq. It is clear to all that the killing of Zarqawi no more constitutes an end to violence in that country than the capture of Saddam Hussein.
The US administration is pinning its hopes on the momentum gained by the formation of the new Iraqi government, which it is helping assert its power countrywide. The large-scale attack against insurgents that the Iraqi army launched this week, with support and guidance from the American forces, was meant to do just that - to show the Iraqi people that something is finally changing. And if the Iraqis begin to believe it is, maybe the Americans will come to believe it as well.
On the political level, Bush's main goal now is to rescue the mid-term elections, coming up in November, from a possible Democratic take-over in Congress - something polls show is favored by a majority of the population. But polls do not necessarily reflect the actual voting patterns of each individual congressional district.
Showing some forward movement in Iraq over the next couple of months would be the best gift Bush could give his party members struggling to get reelected and to maintain the Republican hegemony in both the House and the Senate. Failure on his part to do so will make the president a political burden, one that candidates would prefer to distance themselves from.
The main advantage Bush and the Republicans have, meanwhile, is the disarray within the Democratic Party. The Democrats seem to find it difficult to speak in one voice on Iraq, and while former presidential candidate Senator John Kerry has called for setting a deadline for pulling American troops out of Iraq, Senator Hillary Clinton, a possible presidential candidate for 2008, has publicly opposed any deadline for troop withdrawal.
WILL THE Bush administration's internal troubles affect US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian problem?
Not directly, mainly because there is no active American policy on this issue at present. The administration would like to see Israel talk with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and would like to increase pressure on Hamas, but that's about all. There is no grand plan for saving the Middle East, and no hope of any agreement being reached in the near future.
The question of Bush's political strength may become important for the region once the Israeli realignment plan moves forward. At that time, Israel would like to see a strong American president who would work to sell the plan to the world, just as he did before the Gaza disengagement. A president who lacks popular support and who is preoccupied with Iraq will find it hard to come up with the time and energy to delve into the Middle East peace process. It is, as Bush learned from the experience of his predecessors, a thankless job- one that won't help him regain the support of the American public, which has only one thing really on its mind right now: Iraq.