With the amount of worldwide press coverage that the US election has been getting, it’s easy to forget that there are still eight months left in George W. Bush’s presidency. Amid all of the excitement over Clinton, Obama and McCain, the unpleasant reality is that over the next 2/3 of a year the world is going to be living with the most handicapped lame duck US presidency in living memory. It’s something that the global community, and Europe in particular, should be feeling more than a little anxious about.
‘Lame duck’ periods are of course a repeating phenomenon in the United States, happening every time a president approaches the end of their term (if they are not running for reelection). During this period media attention shifts away from the current president and the administration is unable to propose any new initiatives. Diplomats are able to speak with less authority because they may be replaced in a matter of months, and the White House may not bother filling vacancies and instead wait for the new administration to make appointments. Because people know that everything is about to change in a matter of months, very little gets done during this period. It’s an impractical system, but it’s something that the US has come to live with.
However this year is different. Normally these periods last a few months, not the year and a half that has happened this cycle. And the widespread scorn for this outgoing administration is at unprecedented levels. Never in the past century has the US seen a presidency so delegitimized with so many months left in it. Bush’s disapproval rating, at 70 percent, is now higher than for any president in US history. It is even higher than Richard Nixon’s post-Watergate numbers immediately before his resignation (66 percent).
Loss of Legitimacy
The fact is that the Bush presidency is now seen as, at best, not credible and at worse, illegitimate, by a majority of people both outside and within the United States. Nowhere was this more apparent than today when the contents of former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s new book were revealed by the Washington Post. McClellan, who was the mouthpiece of the administration in the run-up to the Iraq war and during most of its prosecution, has confirmed that the Bush Administration deliberately set out to mislead the American public in the run-up to the Iraq War. From the Post:
Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan writes in a new memoir that the Iraq war was sold to the American people with a sophisticated "political propaganda campaign" led by President Bush and aimed at "manipulating sources of public opinion" and "downplaying the major reason for going to war."
McClellan includes the charges in a 341-page book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," that delivers a harsh look at the White House and the man he served for close to a decade. He describes Bush as demonstrating a "lack of inquisitiveness," says the White House operated in "permanent campaign" mode, and admits to having been deceived by some in the president's inner circle about the leak of a CIA operative's name.
These allegations coming from President Bush's former press secretary, a man who served him for a decade, are truly shocking. It is not the allegations themselves that are shocking - they merely confirm what most Americans have come to believe anyway - it is the fact that the man making them was the very person delivering the "political propaganda campaign" to the media, making the accusations all but incontrovertible. If anyone is in a position to confirm this authoritatively, it’s him.
But the allegations have been greeted with a collective yawn by the US media and public today. Why? Because rather than revealing new information, it merely confirms what everyone already believes. This reveals a troubling reality: the American public, and the world at large, has ceased to view the Bush administration as a legitimate presidency.
The implications for this are dire. Another Washington Post article from today details the degree to which top administration officials are fleeing this unpopular government. A study of federal records revealed that senior officials are bolting for the exits at an unprecedented pace, leaving nearly half the administration's top political positions vacant or filled by temporary appointees. More than 200 pending nominations are languishing on Capitol Hill and will likely not be confirmed by the end of the year, a result of Republican legislators hurrying to distance themselves from the president and not cooperating with political appointments.
And these vacancies are likely to continue to grow, especially within the departments that have been plagued with scandal under the Bush administration such as the General Services Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Justice Department. All of this is happening as the US is concurrently waging two wars abroad and is facing a housing crisis and recession at home. The White House has also taken the unprecedented step of ordering federal agencies to stop proposing regulations after Sunday, most likely knowing that any proposals would be an exercise in futility anyway.
A friend who works for the state department tells me that activity there has virtually ground to a halt. Any new foreign policy initiatives are unthinkable at this point, and those that were begun have been left languishing, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian roadmap. Condoleeza Rice’s fervent dashing around the globe recently seems almost absurdly pointless. The Bush administration has lost its credibility on the world stage and the world is just waiting to see who the next president will be.
With the rock-bottom polls, skyrocketing vacancies and loss of legitimacy, the question needs to be asked: is this a functioning government, or is this a state in limbo? And with the US still the lone superpower on the globe, what does this mean for world security? Anything could happen in these next eight months. If the unthinkable were to occur, if catastrophe were to strike, the world would turn to a United States in disarray, with no credible leadership and preoccupied with disastrous wars in the Middle East and economic turmoil at home. For Europe, which still depends on the United States for its security, these are uncertain times.
Eight months can seem like a very, very long time. Everyone should hold their breath.