President Bush: Power is Diminishing

It’s that time of year, when presidents put forth their plans, initiatives and proposals. This week we get the State of the Union Address, next week is the budget, and the week after we will see the Economic Report of the President.

Every president since Harry Truman, however, has faced the reality that they are racing against the clock. Because of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, President Bush knows that he has just three years left to do whatever he plans to do.

For this reason, he has diminishing power to actually implement his proposals. Members of Congress, unlike the president, may serve indefinitely. Most in Congress today will be around long after President Bush is gone.

Already we are seeing Republicans beginning to distance themselves from Bush in ways they would not have done two or three years ago. Then, they would have been fearful of his retaliation. They might have faced his opposition to their own initiatives or feared that he might not invite them to a White House event or appear at a fund-raising function.

Now, they have less to lose if they incur his wrath. Moreover, members of Congress have to start preparing for the inevitable post-Bush era. As a consequence, Bush is slowly, inexorably losing power. His promises and threats both have less potency, and therefore, he has less ability to set the agenda and move the policy debate where he wants it to go.

By this time next year, Bush effectively will be impotent. The race for 2008 will have started in earnest, and those who would replace him will increasingly command the media’s and the public’s attention. Voters are, after all, primarily concerned about the future.

As time goes by, we will be hearing more and more from those hoping to win the Republican and Democratic nominations for president to replace Bush, since it is they, not he, who will command the levers of power down the road. Naturally, the attention of voters, the media and Congress will be focusing on them, not Bush.

Of course, this problem has affected every president in the post-22nd Amendment era. But there is an important difference this time. Every previous two-term president has had a vice president whom he hoped or expected to succeed him. President Bush does not.

Dwight Eisenhower had Richard Nixon, who got the Republican nomination at the end of his presidency in 1960. Lyndon Johnson had Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Ronald Reagan had George H.W. Bush in 1988, and Bill Clinton had Al Gore in 2000.

These presidents all knew that their vice presidents had little choice but to run as their heirs, whether they liked it or not. Eisenhower may not have been very fond of Nixon, and Humphrey and Gore may not have had much affection for Johnson and Clinton, respectively, but they were stuck. If they failed to mutually support each other, they would appear disloyal and jeopardize their party’s chances of retaining the White House.

Consequently, it is a matter of profound political importance that Bush has a vice president who has no chance of succeeding him. Dick Cheney, for age, health and other reasons, is extremely unlikely to be a candidate for president in 2008. Therefore, at this time, Bush has no successor. This inevitably will make him even more of a lame duck than his two-term predecessors in the post-22nd Amendment era.

With Reagan and Clinton, for example, Congress could assume that George H.W. Bush and Gore would continue to push their initiatives to some extent. This gave Reagan and Clinton some clout that this President Bush does not have, allowing them to make their last years in office more fulfilling in terms of knowing there was someone there to carry on their legacy.

And, of course, all presidents view the election of their vice president as a referendum on their own presidency. If their presumed successor is defeated, it is as if they themselves were defeated for a third term if they had been allowed one.

What this means is that President Bush’s power is running out faster than previous two-term presidents because his successor will almost certainly be someone with no ties to his administration, who will be free to chart a completely different course even if he or she is a Republican.

I think Bush should have replaced Cheney in 2004 with someone in a better position to replace him — perhaps Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And I say this with no animosity for Cheney. Other presidents have made such switches, most importantly Franklin Roosevelt, who replaced the delusional Henry Wallace for the solid Harry Truman in 1944. In years to come, both Bush and the Republican Party will regret that he didn’t take similar action.