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"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Just how bad a President is George W Bush?

By Philip Sherwell, US Editor, Sunday Telegraph
November 12 , 2006

When President George W Bush and his wife Laura switched on the 25,000 coloured lights on the White House Christmas tree last week, the cheers from onlookers came as a rare respite from the torrent of bad news dogging his administration.

But even at that moment of seasonal celebration, Mr Bush's mind was on the events, thousands of miles away, that are dominating his presidency.

"We give thanks for the brave men and women in uniform who are serving our nation," he said. "Many of those who have answered the call of duty will spend this Christmas season far from home, and separated from family. We honour their sacrifice."

There is little prospect of festive joy for Mr Bush on the political front. Indeed, a spate of new opinion polls released on Friday made for sobering reading, even for a president renowned for his indefatigable optimism.

According to one, his job approval rating has slumped to a record low of 30 per cent. The highest any gave him was 37 per cent – well below the 40 per cent figure seen as the benchmark for a president in serious difficulties.

In fact, Mr Bush has been below that for months.

A record 71 per cent said they disapproved of his handling of Iraq, with just nine per cent now expecting the US to win the "victory" that President Bush has long been promising.

It all seemed so different in late 2000, when the then Texas governor was elected the 43rd American president, promising to use his tenure at the White House to put into practice his message of "compassionate conservatism".

After the acrimony of the contested Florida recount, he pledged to act as a "uniter", bringing the country together after the bitterly partisan years of the Clinton administration.

His handling of the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 sent his popularity ratings soaring. Yet six years into his tenure, he is one of the most polarising presidents in American history, dragged down by an unpopular war abroad and lame-duck status at home after the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress last month.

Now his political enemies are asking – perhaps rhetorically – whether he may eventually rank among the worst presidents in American history.

And even within once-loyal Republican ranks, anger at Mr Bush's failures is spilling out. Senator Gordon Smith from Oregon would have been seen by the White House as an ally until recently. Last week he delivered a blistering critique of the president's Iraq policy, describing it as "absurd" and possibly "criminal" in an emotional speech to the outgoing Republican Congress.

The volte face by the Oregon conservative, inspired by the damning findings of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), is expected to be followed by other Republicans distancing themselves from a president serving out his last two years.

In defiant mood, Mr Bush is expected to go on the offensive in a pre-Christmas address, outlining a "new way forward" in Iraq. He plans to reject key tenets of the ISG report that recommended a withdrawal of all US combat troops by early 2008 and talks with Syria and Iran.

Aides are already dismissing those proposals as the "unworkable" ideas of a group of bipartisan "greybeards" — a sign that, despite the revolt by voters against the Republicans in last month's mid-term elections, the president is still resisting any dramatic change of strategy.

But the pressures on Mr Bush are growing almost daily. Apart from the ISG report, he was faced last week with the forced resignation of John Bolton, his combative ambassador to the United Nations. Mr Bolton, a key political ally of President Bush, stepped aside because he could not win Senate support to make his temporary appointment permanent.

It was the second loss of a trusted confidant in barely a month, after Mr Bush reluctantly ousted Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary in the aftermath of the mid-terms. Mr Rumsfeld's replacement is Robert Gates, a former CIA director, who has made strong criticisms of tactics in Iraq and admitted that the US is not winning the war.

This enforced changing of the guard has been accompanied by cracks in the administration discipline: two key confidential security memos by top officials – one attacking the Iraqi prime minister, the other revealing Mr Rumsfeld's own thinking on Iraq – have appeared in the liberal New York Times in recent days. The leaks are a further sign that President Bush — who called himself "the decider" on Iraq a few months ago — is struggling to keep control.

It is not just Iraq that is undermining his standing. North Korea recently tested an atomic device and Iran is pressing ahead with its uranium enrichment operations, despite Mr Bush's insistence that he would not countenance either country going nuclear.

Domestically, many Americans are uneasy about the secret eavesdropping programme which he authorised, without the need for warrants. Mr Bush has been assailed by fiscal conservatives for spiralling government spending, the sliding dollar is alarming economists and his tardy handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster hurt his reputation for strong leadership.

Mr Bush's attempt to overhaul the country's creaking and expensive welfare system by introducing private retirement investment accounts has hit the buffers, and he enraged once-loyal supporters when he tried to nominate his friend, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court rather than a conservative legal jurist.

The president's cheerleaders counter that, because of the focus on current events in Iraq, his critics are forgetting the recent past and dismissing the future. They argue that Mr Bush's greatest achievement has been in the area of national security, preventing a further attack on US soil after the September 2001 terrorist strikes, and they say it is too early to write off his "freedom agenda" for the Middle East.

On the domestic front, they hail his appointment of two conservative judges — after the Miers fiasco – to vacancies on the Supreme Court, his No Child Left Behind Initiative to improve schooling and the 2003 tax cuts that have helped boost economic growth, reduce unemployment and coax shares to record levels.

But the record on the economy is mixed. Federal spending has soared during the Bush administration, reaching $2.65 trillion this year (or more than one-fifth of GDP). Mr Bush inherited a budget surplus from his predecessor, Bill Clinton, but swiftly moved into deficit. As a result, national debt has gone from $5.7 trillion to $8.6 trillion, its highest level in history.

Roy Moore, a former Alabama chief justice who became a hero of the religious Right when he refused to take down the Ten Commandments from his courtroom, spoke for many disillusioned Christian conservatives when he assessed last month's Republican defeat.

Former president Ronald Reagan's "adherence to conservative principles and moral virtue helped the Republican Party end nearly 40 years of Democratic control of Congress," he said, "But those ideals have virtually been abandoned by Republican leadership today."

He slammed "wasteful government spending, once thought characteristic of Democratic administrations". And, citing a series of scandals, he added that "perhaps the greatest divergence from Republican philosophy has been the widespread rejection of moral principles by many Republicans elected to office".

When Congress returns next month, both chambers will be under Democrat control, forcing Mr Bush to strike deals with his political foes in order to help shape domestic policy. But some prominent conservatives are warning him not to compromise too far.

"If the president wants a legacy, he must resist the temptation to come to agreements that threaten his tax cuts," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who said Mr Bush was "very upbeat" when he talked with him at the White House Christmas party on Thursday evening.

David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, said that Mr Bush must reach out to disillusioned Republicans. "Many conservatives feel this administration has lost its moorings," he said. "Anyone who complained about government spending was consigned to the outer darkness.

"Now they've found that, with an increasingly unpopular war, they need support on other issues. Mr Bush will have to go back to basics, to preserve tax cuts and to fight spending, in a way that he's not done before." He pointed out that opinion on the Iraq war might change in years to come. "You can easily posit a scenario where Iraq eventually becomes a success, and he is viewed well by history."

None the less, Iraq remains the issue that overwhelmingly shapes public opinion. Robert Novak, a conservative commentator, warned last week: "In contact mainly with fawning campaign contributors, Bush may not appreciate the steady decline in support of his war policy that I have seen deepening among Republicans in the past year."

At the White House on Thursday, standing alongside Tony Blair, one of his last dependable foreign allies in these troubled times, Mr Bush tetchily acknowledged that the situation in Iraq was grave and that mistakes had been made.

It was a far cry from another White House press conference two years ago, just after he won his second term. Then the president bounced into the room with a spring in his step, and declared his intention to spend the "political capital" he had just earned in his election victory.

He must regret how quickly that "capital" has been squandered.

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