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Taking stock: primary season view on Bush

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Things have to be tough for President Bush right now. Day by day, America is hearing from and seeing the bright stars of the Democratic Party as they battle for the presidential nomination. Even in the primary contests, the Democratic mantra of unity ("Beat Bush!") is all-pervasive and the voters are so far rejecting negativity among the candidates, several of whom are quite attractive and articulate. Early in this campaign year, it would seem that the Democratic base is quite engaged, even as the Republican base appears to be fracturing along a couple of fault lines. No doubt world events could fuse those lines in times of national focus - all to the President's advantage, but some costly national and international decisions are giving way to growing doubts.

President Bush defined his government and its policies in his Jan. 20 State of the Union Address. The topic of security was about half of the Address. The other half encompassed at least eight topics: Economy; Education; Taxes and Jobs; Immigration; Health Care; Drug Abuse; Sex and Marriage; Social Services.

On the overarching issues of international policy (security) and the national economy, Democratic candidates are starting to take their toll on the president. The scandalous misreading or perhaps outright deception on the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction from Iraq has been front-page news all this week. The arbitrary discarding of an apparently successful containment policy in Iraq is a huge question. Over 3,000 American casualties, including more than 500 killed and death counts every week - at huge taxpayer expense - is the continuous consequence.

The Administration's Iraq strategy was rich in ideological content, deeply flawed in the pragmatics and woefully unrealistic of post-Saddam realities. Beyond the history of Saddam Hussein's certain villainy is the un-governability of the tribes and ethnicities within Iraq itself. All are rapidly intensifying in their dislike of American occupation, while the Iraqi insurgency continues. Predictions rise that the country will be either torn asunder by ethnic civil war or end up with a democratically elected fundamentalist regime.

The home front problem is an economic recovery without jobs and the growing awareness by working Americans of the widening gulf between rich and middle income people throughout the country. In this context, the Bush Administration's wanton tax breaks curved to benefit the very rich and its liberal spending on home security and no-bid reconstruction contracts in Iraq, have stressed the national treasury and unleashed dizzying deficits that threaten to dismantle popular and much-needed social programs. Bush's growing deficit ($477 billion this year) is under growing attack by fiscal conservatives as well.

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A persistent problem for Bush is the growing charge by Democrats (and comedians) that he does not quite lead his troops, that he is not quite engaged. It may seem harsh to say it, because it is always true that the office of the President of the United States commands respect, but the man sitting in it just does not display a full and authentic grasp on the tremendously complex issues facing the country and the world.

These days, compared to the energized Democratic patriots, Bush appears minutely handled; not just managed like all politicians, but handled. He is forthright enough and always focused on message, and physically fit and ruddy, but it seems he does not ever truly wrap his mind (or tongue) around the articulation of complex ideas. His themes are just too simple, too predicated on a kind of blind ignorance, the faith of the good versus evil anti-thinking that is too easy to exploit. Much of the world is left wondering just who is leading the country. Of particular repugnance is the constant, in your face, Christian evangelical tone, the touting of faith-based initiatives and the like, which confuse a terribly important guiding principle of the country: separation of church and state. In the calculated way this issue is played out, the White House seems all smoke and mirrors, while the President hardly ever utters an un-telepromted word.

Conversely, Vice-President Dick Cheney, recently spotted in Europe, exudes the confidence of the ultimate political elder and kingmaker. At Davos, he could speak at length extemporaneously, holding court on the issues with an audience of the world's most powerful men. It seemed high contrast, and in fact the now-you-see-him-now-you-don't-Vice-President is well recognized as the Administration's powerhouse decision-maker on foreign and war policy, on international trade and on domestic economic policy.

On Iraq, it increasingly appears the Vice-President's office pressured the CIA to produce evidence that would support the theory of Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction. Iraq is perhaps Cheney's war even more than Bush's. Domestically, Cheney was the primary advocate for the economy-crippling tax breaks to the richest Americans, the one who Paul O'Neill courageously critiqued as Treasury Secretary. Said Cheney, according to O'Neill: "Deficits don't matter."

Need we say, Halliburton?

Hard to tell who the boss is, of course, but gravitas in the Republican ticket does seem to weigh down toward the Vice-President. The Darth Vader effect, some call it. Running against Dick Cheney in this election might be just the ticket for Democrats.