Why so Lame?

Ah, the question of the year: Why is President Bush such a lame, unpopular duck these days? Why can’t he get anything substantial done? Why does the public hate him? Why won’t even Congressional Republicans listen to him anymore? Sifting through this New York Times article on the subject offers a few explanations. One, Republicans have ruled Congress with such a partisan iron fist over the past four years, that suddenly, when they need Democratic help, they’re not getting it. Two, “maverick” Republicans are finally lashing out and expressing their discontent at Bush; although it should be noted that, apart from a few hard-hitting quotes, moderates like Chuck Hagel and John McCain aren’t actually doing anything to help fix the problems they claim Bush is creating. Three, Bush is trying to gut Social Security, which isn’t called the “third rail” of politics for nothing.

Other possible reasons for lame-duckitude: Bush is being yanked by social conservatives into wildly unpopular territory, from his opposition to stem-cell research to the whole Terry Schiavo affair. Also, the lack of a clear presidential successor means that prominent Republicans—from Bill Frist to, well, Chuck Hagel—are all more concerned with preening and positioning themselves for the 2008 presidential nomination than they are about lining up behind Bush and supporting him.

A final reason why Bush has become such a wildly unpopular and ineffective president, as explained by Ryan Lizza, is that voters are seeing a massive disconnect between the campaign Bush—who won the election by convincing everyone that he could kill terrorists with lasers blasting out of his eyes—and the second-term Bush, who seems to care only about progressive indexing and slashing benefits for the elderly. The former was stately, even heroic, for many voters; the latter just petty and stingy. Expectations for Bush are wildly out of line with what he actually wants to accomplish. Here’s Lizza:

In his influential book The Personal President: Power Invested, Promise Unfilled, released just as Ronald Reagan was settling in for his second term, political scientist Theodore Lowi argued that the final years of any modern presidency are doomed to failure. His argument, written in the wake of the disappointing presidencies of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, was that the rise of the president as the central figure in U.S. political life had created expectations of what the president could accomplish that are wildly out of sync with the actual powers of the job. The result is a continually frustrated public. He argued that every failure only created more frantic p.r. attempts by the president to be seen as successful, often creating incentives for “adventurism abroad.” “As visibility goes up,” Lowi once told The Atlantic, “so do expectations and vulnerability. There’s more of a chance to make really big mistakes. It’s a treadmill to oblivion. It’s why modern history is filled with so many failed presidencies.”

Now maybe if the president puts the focus back on national security—Iraq, say, or a more menacing stance towards Iran—he’ll regain his footing. Maybe some sort of national security crisis will break out. But barring that, it seems the only way for Bush to salvage his second term is to become genuinely bipartisan and start reaching out to Democrats and other moderates. That’s what Ronald Reagan did when facing lame-duckhood—both with his bipartisan tax reform package and holding summit talks with Gorbachev—and it’s what Clinton did too, with balanced budgets and intervention in Kosovo. Sadly for Bush, compromise and outreach isn’t really in his DNA, so he’s going to spend the next four years looking mighty useless. Oh well.


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