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Bush's Downward Slide

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 10, 2006; 1:18 PM

President Bush's approval ratings appear to be dropping to their lowest levels ever -- and this time, to the enormous apprehension of the White House, there's something voters can do about it.

Officially, the White House refuses to even consider the possibility of a Democratic takeover of Congress in the November 7 elections. (As Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service, "It's a question the White House has banished to the won't-dignify-it-with-an-answer category.")

Maybe that's because it's hard for anyone -- Bush fan or foe -- to imagine how different a Bush presidency would be with a Congress that doesn't bend to his will and maybe even starts to question him.

And while it's too soon to count Karl Rove and the White House political machine out, it's going to be awfully hard for Bush to come to the rescue of his party when his lack of credibility is the cause of so many of its problems.

Poll Watch

Underlying grim news at the polls for Republicans generally is a dismal report card for the president in particular. Bush approval ratings in a nutshell: Washington Post/ABC, 39; Newsweek, 33; New York Times/CBS, 34; USA Today/Gallup, 37.

David S. Broder and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "Democrats have regained a commanding position going into the final weeks of the midterm-election campaigns, with support eroding for Republicans on Iraq, ethics and presidential leadership, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. . . .

"President Bush's approval rating, which rose to 42 percent in September after an anti-terrorism offensive marking the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, registered 39 percent in the latest poll. The percentage of respondents who said they strongly disapprove of his performance is about double the number who strongly approve. This disparity in voter intensity could have implications for turnout on Nov. 7, since impassioned voters are most likely to go to the polls. . . .

"Bush's ratings on the war in Iraq are among the lowest of his presidency, with 35 percent approving of how he is handling the situation and 64 percent disapproving (54 percent strongly disapprove). On terrorism, a majority (53 percent) said they disapprove of his performance. That is the lowest rating Bush has received on his signature issue."

Here are those poll results .

Marcus Mabry writes for Newsweek that "the president's approval rating has fallen to a new all-time low for the Newsweek poll: 33 percent, down from an already anemic 36 percent in August."

There seems to be little doubt that the congressional page-sex scandal revolving around former Republican representative Mark Foley has crystallized voters' doubts about the GOP overall.

Writes Mabry: "The scandal's more significant impact seems to be a widening of the yawning credibility gap developing between the president, his party and the nation. While 52 percent of Americans believe [House Speaker Dennis] Hastert was aware of Foley's actions and tried to cover them up, it's part of a larger loss of faith in Republican leadership, thanks mostly to the war in Iraq. For instance, for the first time in the Newsweek poll, a majority of Americans now believe the Bush administration knowingly misled the American people in building its case for war against Saddam Hussein: 58 percent vs. 36 percent who believe it didn't.

"And pessimism over Iraq is at record highs on every score: nearly two in three Americans, 64 percent, believe the United States is losing ground there; 66 percent say the war has not made America safer from terrorism (just 29 percent believe it has); and 53 percent believe it was a mistake to go to war at all, again the first time the Newsweek poll has registered a majority in that camp."

Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush's job approval rating has slipped to 34 percent, from 37 percent in September. That is one of the lowest levels of his presidency and poses a complication for the White House as it seeks to send him out on the road to rally base voters. Mr. Bush's job-approval rating has even slipped with his base: 75 percent of conservative Republicans approve of the way he has handled his job, compared with 96 percent in November 2004.

"The president clearly faces constraints as he seeks to address the public concerns about Iraq that have shrouded this midterm election: 83 percent of respondents thought that Mr. Bush was either hiding something or mostly lying when he discussed how the war in Iraq was going. . . .

"The number of Americans who approve of Mr. Bush's handling of the campaign against terrorism dropped to 46 percent from 54 percent in the past two weeks, suggesting that he failed to gain any political lift from an orchestrated set of ceremonies marking the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks."

Here are those results .

Joseph Carroll writes for the Gallup Poll: "A new USA Today/Gallup poll finds that 37% of Americans approve of the way President George W. Bush is handling his job as president. This marks a seven-point drop from Gallup's most recent poll in mid-September, but is generally in line with Bush's average approval rating since June. The current poll also finds a decline in Bush's rating on Iraq, now at a new low, and terrorism, but little change in his ratings on the economy. . . .

"Seventy-seven percent of Republicans approve of Bush, compared with 31% of independents and 12% of Democrats. Bush's current approval ratings among Democrats and independents show little variation in recent months, but Republicans' ratings of Bush dropped nine points since mid-September and are at their lowest level since June."

Abandon Ship -- Just Not Yet?

Jake Tapper blogged for ABC News on Friday: "Now today comes word from Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, that two other Senate Republicans have told him they'll break with the White House Iraq strategy.

"But here's the hook -- they won't do so until after the November elections.

"'Two leading Republican Senators have come to me,' Biden recalled, and said that after the election 'the need to protect the president will be nonexistent' and Republicans will be freer to break with the White House and call for change in Iraq."

Rove's Top Aide Resigns

A massive ethics scandal that has spawned criminal prosecutions on Capitol Hill and on K Street claims its first victim deep in the heart of the White House.

You'd think that would be more than a one-day story, wouldn't you?

But you would be wrong.

There's a reason this White House, like the one before it, dumps bad news late on Friday afternoons. It rarely fails to rob the stories of traction.

Add to the mix the fact that the Foley scandal has been a heck of a distraction, and the result is that a lot of people haven't heard anything at all about an awfully consequential event.

Peter Baker and James V. Grimaldi wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "A top aide to White House strategist Karl Rove resigned yesterday after disclosures that she accepted gifts from and passed information to now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, becoming the first official in the West Wing to lose a job in the influence-peddling scandal.

"Susan B. Ralston submitted her resignation to avoid causing political damage to President Bush a month before the midterm elections, officials said. 'She did not want to be a distraction to the White House at this important time,' said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

"A congressional report showed last week that Ralston accepted sometimes-pricey tickets to nine sports and entertainment events from Abramoff while she provided him with inside White House information. The bipartisan report said there is no evidence that Rove knew of or approved of Ralston's actions, and sources said yesterday that the White House was surprised by the report's revelations.

"The White House counsel's office conducted a review of the report, but with Ralston's departure it closed its inquiry yesterday. 'Nothing more will come from the report, no further fallout from the report,' Perino said."

In other words: Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

Peter Wallsten wrote in Saturday's Los Angeles Times: "Susan Ralston had worked as Rove's executive assistant, functioning as a gatekeeper of sorts for President Bush's most trusted political advisor. She was an aide to Abramoff before she joined the White House and became what the lobbyist called his 'implant' there.

"As Rove's top staffer and a special assistant to the president, Ralston becomes the closest aide to Bush to leave in a scandal that has so far enveloped lobbyists, lawmakers, Capitol Hill aides and an administration procurement official while, until now, sparing the inner sanctum of the White House."

Anne E. Kornblut wrote in Saturday's New York Times: "For more than a year, Ms. Ralston was entangled in two Washington scandals at once. A nexus between Mr. Abramoff and Mr. Rove, she was also pivotal in the C.I.A. leak case. It was Ms. Ralston who patched through a telephone call from a Time magazine reporter to Mr. Rove, a conversation that cast a suspicion on the White House strategist. Ms. Ralston testified to a grand jury on the leak and was interviewed by prosecutors in the Abramoff case. . . .

"On Friday, Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, which issued the report, accused White House officials of 'trying to make Susan Ralston the scapegoat.'"

Meet Susan Ralston

Baker and Grimaldi write in The Post: "As right hand to the president's most important adviser, Ralston was closer to the center of the Bush operation. She was a key organizer of presidential events, coordinating with White House political, scheduling, advance and public liaison offices."

For the first four years of Bush's term, Ralston had the relatively lowly title of executive assistant to Rove. But after the election, and Rove's own short-lived promotion to deputy chief of staff for policy, she was given the much loftier title of "special assistant to the president and assistant to the senior adviser." Her salary shot up from $67,600 in 2004 , to $92,100 in 2005 , to $122,000 in 2006 . Her latest perch at the White House was just steps away from the Oval Office. (See my White House floor plan .)

Peter H. Stone wrote in the National Journal in 2004: "As presidential adviser Karl Rove set up shop in the West Wing in 2001, he was looking for an assistant to serve as the trusted gatekeeper of his new fiefdom. Superlobbyist and Republican fundraiser Jack Abramoff was happy to lend a hand. Abramoff knew just the right person for the job: his own assistant, Susan Ralston. She interviewed with Rove and got the position."

Ralston told Filipinas magazine in 2004: "Working for Karl Rove is like being at the center of the Bush universe -- I am fortunate to be where I am, and be involved in much of what goes on at the White House."

Anne E. Kornblut wrote in the New York Times a year ago: "At the nexus of two high-profile investigations roiling the nation's capital is an unlikely -- and largely anonymous -- figure known for fiercely safeguarding her bosses.

"Susan B. Ralston, 38, has worked as an assistant and side-by-side adviser to Karl Rove since 2001, helping manage his e-mail, meetings and phone calls from her perch near his office in the West Wing. That has made her an important witness in the C.I.A. leak investigation, as the special prosecutor has sought to determine whether Mr. Rove misled investigators about his contacts with reporters about Valerie Wilson, the undercover operative whose identity was made public in 2003."

Kornblut wrote that Ralston functioned "as Mr. Rove's own chief of staff, coordinating the five groups within the West Wing that he oversees."

Opinion Watch

From a Washington Post editorial : "You might think a White House worried about honor and integrity would want to look more closely at Mr. Abramoff's dealings. You might think it would be concerned about whether Ms. Ralston violated the rules that prohibit administration officials from taking gifts valued at more than $20, though there is an exception for gifts based on preexisting friendships. You might think it would want to make clear that -- whether technically permitted by the rules or not -- this is unacceptable behavior from government officials.

"Not this White House."

From a New York Times editorial : "The White House spin is that Mr. Abramoff had a well-known affinity for exaggerating the impact of his lobbying efforts. If so, full disclosure of relevant records by the White House could help support that claim. Meanwhile, the idea that Mr. Abramoff exerted no influence with the administration seems about as believable as Mark Foley's early claim that his only interest in 16-year-old pages was 'mentoring.'"

From a St. Petersburg Times editorial : "The more the Bush administration denies any past relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the hotter the trail gets to the Oval Office. Abramoff's fingerprints have now been found in the White House. . . .

"It may not be so easy to keep distancing President Bush from Abramoff. . . . Only a full investigation of Abramoff's connections to the White House can close this case."

Dale McFeatters writes for Scripps Howard News Service: "The White House finally caught a break on scandals. Thanks to the uproar over former GOP Rep. Mark Foley's steamy e-mails, the departure of a top aide to White House political guru Karl Rove passed, as planned, almost unnoticed."

North Korea's Bomb

Michael Abramowitz and Colum Lynch write in The Washington Post: "The White House pushed yesterday for aggressive new sanctions on North Korea, including measures to limit trade in military and luxury items, as Pyongyang's claim that it conducted an underground nuclear test defied the administration's efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction."

Warren Hoge and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times: "At the White House, President Bush called the North Korean test 'a threat to international peace and security' and condemned it as a 'provocative act.' . . .

"Mr. Bush also issued a pointed, albeit carefully worded, warning to the North not to export any nuclear technology it might have."

Here's the text of Bush's statement.

Craig Gordon writes for Newsday: "President George W. Bush called for a swift global response to North Korea's purported nuclear test yesterday, but Bush's options are limited at best and unthinkable at worst, analysts said."

The Bush Legacy

Gideon Rachman writes in the Financial Times: "'The United States of America will not allow the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most dangerous weapons.' That ringing proclamation by President George W. Bush lies at the heart of the 'Bush doctrine,' which took America to war in Iraq.It was made in the president's 2002 State of the Union address -- the same speech in which he introduced the world to an 'axis of evil' of three countries: Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

"Almost five years on and the North Koreans' apparently successful test of a nuclear weapon has delivered what may be a final blow to the Bush doctrine."

Glenn Kessler and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "Nearly five years after President Bush introduced the concept of an 'axis of evil' comprising Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the administration has reached a crisis point with each nation: North Korea has claimed it conducted its first nuclear test, Iran refuses to halt its uranium-enrichment program and Iraq appears to be tipping into a civil war 3 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion.

"Each problem appears to feed on the others, making the stakes higher and requiring Bush and his advisers to make difficult calculations, analysts and U.S. officials said."

Glenn Kessler wrote in The Washington Post on Monday: "North Korea's apparent nuclear test last night may well be regarded as a failure of the Bush administration's nuclear nonproliferation policy.

"Since George W. Bush became president, North Korea has restarted its nuclear reactor and increased its stock of weapons-grade plutonium, so it may now have enough for 10 or 11 weapons, compared with one or two when Bush took office.

"North Korea's test could also unleash a nuclear arms race in Asia, with Japan and South Korea feeling pressure to build nuclear weapons for defensive reasons.

"Yet a number of senior U.S. officials have said privately that they would welcome a North Korean test, regarding it as a clarifying event that would forever end the debate within the Bush administration about whether to solve the problem through diplomacy or through tough actions designed to destabilize North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's grip on power."

What About Talking?

Barbara Demick writes in the Los Angeles Times: "So what went wrong? . . .

"[A]s North Korea plowed ahead with its nuclear program, the Bush administration refused to meet directly with its adversary. Instead, it insisted on a rather clunky diplomatic initiative known as the six-party talks. . . .

"Donald Gregg, a U.S. ambassador to South Korea under Bush's father and now head of the New York-based Korea Society, said the crisis could have been averted if the current Bush administration had talked to the North Koreans directly. He visited Pyongyang in late 2002 and brought back a written offer from the North Koreans to negotiate one-on-one."

Gregg himself writes for the PostGlobal blog: "Why won't the Bush administration talk bilaterally and substantively with NK, as the Brits (and eventually the U.S.) did with Libya? Because the Bush administration sees diplomacy as something to be engaged in with another country as a reward for that country's good behavior. They seem not to see diplomacy as a tool to be used with antagonistic countries or parties, that might bring about an improvement in the behaviour of such entities, and a resolution to the issues that trouble us. Thus we do not talk to Iran, Syria, Hizballah or North Korea. We only talk to our friends -- a huge mistake."

Joseph Cirincione writes for Salon that "despite some internal dissent, hard-liners in the administration have controlled the U.S. approach to North Korea since Bush took office. That approach has brimmed with tough talk and threats, while scorning diplomacy as a badge of weakness. The White House refuses to negotiate directly with North Korea -- but it has no viable plan, military or otherwise, for stopping further tests. North Korea's provocative move is the latest evidence that Bush's strategy for preventing the global spread of nuclear weapons has failed."

The White House View

Writing in Time, Mike Allen presents the White House press office's stance: "If Kim Jong-Il thought he was could take advantage of a president who was down politically, he may be in for a surprise. Osama bin Laden's electronic appearance in the closing week of the 2004 campaign didn't do much for John Kerry either. Republicans, while taking care to express appropriate concern about the possibility of an Asian arms race, said they were relieved to see Bush back in the bully pulpit, wearing his commander-in-chief hat and leading the world in pushing for punitive action by the U.N. Security Council. 'Once again North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond,' Bush said this morning in the Diplomatic Reception Room, where a row of books added gravity. 'This was confirmed this morning in conversations I had with leaders of China, and South Korea, Russia, and Japan.'"

Stop for a moment, though, and consider two unsupported assumptions in those first two sentences: That Kim Jong-Il is rooting for Democrats in November, and that bin Laden was, too.

That may be what the White House would like you to believe, but without any substantiation -- and as regards the latter point, considerable evidence to the contrary. As Ron Suskind wrote in his book, "The One Percent Doctrine," CIA analysts quickly concluded that the bin Laden video was designed to help Bush get reelected -- as Bush's policies were strengthening his position.

Woodward Watch

Sarah Wheaton blogs for the New York Times: "The White House pushback on the Bob Woodward book 'State of Denial' is operating in a bizarro public relations universe where the press staff trumpets the administration's worst data to the media.

"The latest blast comes in response to the Washington Post reporter's appearance on NBC's ' Meet the Press ' with Tim Russert Sunday."

It came in the form of another of the White House's

" Setting the Record Straight " memos.

Cheney's Barnyard Epithet

On that same " Meet the Press ," Woodward had this exchange with Russert:

"MR. RUSSERT: Have you spoken to the president or the vice president since this book came out?

"MR. WOODWARD: The vice president called me I guess as it was coming out, 10 days ago.


"MR. WOODWARD: Well, he called to complain that I was quoting him about the meetings with Henry Kissinger that he and the president had. I had interviewed Vice President Cheney last year a couple of times at length about material I'm gathering on the Ford administration, on-the-record interviews, but he volunteered, he said, 'Oh, by the way, Henry Kissinger comes in' and he, Dick Cheney, sits down with him once a month and the president every two or three months. And Cheney was upset I was quoting him. And I said, 'Look, this 'on-the-record' doesn't have anything to do with Ford, you volunteered that.' He then used a word which I can't repeat on the air. And I said, 'Look, on the record is on the record,' and he hung up on me.

"MR. RUSSERT: What, what do you mean, he swore at you?

"MR. WOODWARD: He, he said what I was saying was bull-something."

Russert tried to change the subject, but Woodward was on a roll.

"MR. WOODWARD: No, but he, but he hung up. Now, look, I can, I can see, I went back and looked at the transcript. . . . [Have you] ever had a disagreement about ground rules with someone. Have you?

"MR. RUSSERT: Well, he thought he was talking, he thought he was talking to you for one project and you used it in another project.

"MR. WOODWARD: Well, exactly. But it had nothing to do with it, and it's clearly spelled out that it's an on-the-record interview. And so -- now, what does he do instead of saying, 'Well, okay, I look at it this way, you look at it that way'? It's a metaphor for what's going on: Hang up when somebody has a different point of view or information you don't want to deal with."

Blackened Mood?

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "Suddenly, like the fierce 'blue northers' that sweep across Texas each autumn, the political winds have turned bleaker for Republicans -- and President Bush's private mood has blackened accordingly. . . .

"'He's on scent and he's driving hard,' a longtime political confidant of the president reported early this month. 'He's got the microphone and thinks he's controlling the political debate.' . . .

"Now, however, friends, aides and close political allies tell the Daily News Bush is furious with his own side for helping create a political downdraft that has blunted his momentum and endangered GOP prospects for keeping control of Congress next month.

"Some of his anger is directed at former aides who helped Watergate journalist Bob Woodward paint a lurid portrait of a dysfunctional, chaotic administration in his new book, 'State of Denial.'

"In the obsessively private Bush clan, talking out of school is the ultimate act of disloyalty, and Bush feels betrayed from within.

"'He's ticked off big-time,' said a well-informed source,' even if what they said was the truth.'"

First Comedian

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service about Bush's remarks at a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration Friday afternoon.

"'I am proud to be here with Lieutenant Colonel Consuelo Kickbusch. She's the winner of the Hispanic Heritage Award 2006. Interesting name: Kickbusch. Sounds like a political campaign,' Bush said. . . .

"Bush also welcomed 'his royal highness, Prince Felipe de Borbon, the crown prince of the kingdom of Spain.'

"'Please give your best to His Majesty and your mom,' Bush said. 'And I will do the same on behalf of you to my father and Her Majesty, my mother.'"

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