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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 November 2005, 10:07 GMT
Bush's second-term gambles yet to pay off

By Matt Frei
BBC Washington correspondent

George bush
George Bush has thrown caution to the wind for better and for worse

When they are popular, presidents are like celebrity gold dust sprinkled on the campaign trail of lesser candidates. George W Bush has been particularly magnanimous with his time.

During the mid-term elections of 2002, which resulted in a significant victory for the Republican Party, he campaigned tirelessly on behalf of aspiring members of the Congress and the Senate.

This wasn't just generosity. It was part and parcel of a mission to establish the Republican Party as the natural party of government, much as the Democrats had been until the 1980s.

So consider then the decision of Jerry W Kilgore, the Republican candidate for governor in the state of Virginia. In a race that is too close to call he needs all the help he can get.

Last Friday the president gave a keynote speech to military personnel in Norfolk, Virginia. It was expected that Mr Kilgore would seize this opportunity to appear next to the commander-in-chief in front of a phalanx of cheering troops.

The candidate declined, citing a prior campaign date with seniors. "I'm not ignoring the president," he told the Washington Post. But that was precisely the impression and it has been echoed by Republican hopefuls from Kentucky to Kansas.

Three years left

A year after achieving a stunning re-election, which also saw the Republicans increase their majorities on Capitol Hill, George Bush, the campaign tonic has become a toxin.

Click to see the President's ratings after major events

His approval ratings are consistently below 40%, 15 points lower than Bill Clinton's score at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. A majority of Americans now believe that the country has lost its direction and that the president has lost his grip on that most precious Washington commodity: leadership.

The situation may still be reversed. He still has three years to govern.

So, if the indictment of vice-presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby was the famous "second-term scandal" - and the special prosecutor's continuing investigation into the unmasking of a CIA agent won't deliver any more illustrious indictments - then he can at least say it came early.

The president may once again - in his own words - be "mis-underestimated". But for now it is only his tenacity that gives reason for optimism.

Caution to the wind

Deprived of the opportunity of another campaign George W Bush will now be judged by his record in government. His predecessor played it safe, which may be one reason why Bill Clinton is still a president in search of a legacy.

He has turned out to be the president I thought he would be, which is why I did not vote for him
Pat Belvedere, Philadelphia, PA, US

President Bush has thrown caution to the wind for better and for worse.

The man who came to power in 2000 as the accidental president has turned out to be a brazen gambler: cutting taxes while spending to the hilt; pushing for a bold immigration policy; launching a pre-emptive war of choice in Iraq; declaring his desire to send a man to Mars.

The latter has turned out to be merely fanciful. In all these cases the wheel of fortune is still spinning out of control.

His other big gamble was to ignore America's obsession with bipartisan politics - an instinct rooted in the devastation of the Civil War.

This president has always been more interested in energising the base than appeasing the centre. It was a calculation based on demographics.

The number of Americans who describe themselves as socially conservative, religious and patriotic is growing. The Christian right prides itself on having turned out in large numbers a year ago to keep George Bush in the White House. The problem is that with victory their demands have become more exacting.

By forcing Harriet Miers to withdraw her nomination to the Supreme Court they flexed their muscles and scared the swing voters in the middle who would rather be reassured than energised.

White House 'faces irony'

Recent weeks have also revealed the brittle key stone of the Republican arch.

President Bush's bold plans to legalise the tide of Mexican migrants flooding over the border have delighted Big Fruit and Big Tobacco, who rely on cheap labour, but they have also angered those in his Republican base, who dream of fortress America.

Many Republicans were already queasy about the levels of spending but became decidedly sick in the gut when they heard him talk about "spending whatever it takes" to rebuild New Orleans, a predominantly black community, which was vitriolic about the president's performance after Hurricane Katrina.

By the way, despite this commitment and appointing the first black secretaries of state, George Bush enjoys an approval rating of 2% amongst African-Americans. "I'm a little disappointed!" he admitted the other day.

Most importantly, petrol prices have doubled since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The White House faces the irony of being undermined by the very commodity which many left-wing critics claimed he went to war to protect.

Spectre of civil war

And then there's Iraq. Last Tuesday saw the grim milestone of 2,000 US soldiers killed in the political quick-sands around Baghdad.

US soldier exits helicopter
There is no obvious exit strategy in Iraq

There is no obvious exit strategy, and the spectre of civil war, once deemed unthinkable is now considered probable.

"We cannot leave Iraq in a worse mess than we found it!" is a common refrain. How far removed is this from the ideals of two years ago to turn Iraq into a civic model for the rest of the Middle East?

Meanwhile every dead American soldier and every suicide bomb, felling scores of Iraqi civilians, fuel a question that should have been answered two and half years ago: Why exactly did we go to war against Saddam Hussein?

A consistent majority of Americans now think it wasn't worth it.

Test of America

Like every other nation America is prepared to make sacrifices when they feel that they're necessary. The Afghan war has never been seriously questioned.

A year ago the liberation of Iraq had already run into trouble but George Bush was still perceived as a wartime leader.

Memories of 9/11 were still fresh and although Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda the deaths in the desert were portrayed - and accepted by 51% of the electorate - as a necessary test of America's mettle.

Opinion polls suggest this has changed.

And then came Hurricane Katrina. Mother Nature had dealt him a bad hand, which he made worse.

Glued to their television sets and besieged by images of suffering that seemed to hail from the Third World, Republicans and Democrats were stunned by the ineptitude of an administration that had prided itself on crisis management.

So, a year after slaying the one-term ghost of his father, George W Bush is being assailed by a combination of bad luck and high stakes gambles that have yet to pay off.

If they do he'll be remembered as one of the great presidents. If not, he'll be written off as a crashing failure. It certainly makes for interesting times.

Tax reform: Bush's next big idea?
01 Nov 05 |  Business
Bush sets out second-term goals
03 Feb 05 |  Americas

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