Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Kristof: Extreme Makeover at White House

Time for an Extreme Makeover at the White House

President Bush now has a public approval rating that is 33 percentage points lower than President Clinton's was at the time he was impeached.

But wait! Mr. Bush's presidency may be caught in a profound malaise, but he can still rehabilitate himself to some degree — if he acts quickly and decisively to reshuffle his administration and approach to governing.

The obvious model for Mr. Bush is Ronald Reagan's presidency when it was in a similar tailspin in 1987. The Iran-contra scandal, the failure of the Bork nomination and the stock market plunge left the Reagan administration "paralyzed" and "dead in the water," pundits wrote. A National Journal headline said, "Reagan Now Viewed as an Irrelevant President."

So Mr. Reagan systematically overhauled his presidency. He reached out to Congressional Democrats and appointed a bipartisan commission of three respected statesmen — John Tower, Ed Muskie and Brent Scowcroft — to investigate Iran-contra. He fired or accepted resignations from two national security aides, John Poindexter and Oliver North. He also fired his chief of staff, Donald Regan, and replaced him with Howard Baker, who was respected by both parties.

Mr. Reagan spoke to the nation, accepting personal responsibility for the scandal. "No excuses," he said. "It was a mistake." Mr. Reagan also moderated his agenda, and his approval rating rose from 40 percent in 1987 to 64 percent when he left office.

The other model Mr. Bush could turn to is ... himself. After Governor Bush suffered a stunning 18-point loss to John McCain in the New Hampshire primary in February 2000, not all the efforts on Mr. Bush's behalf were aboveboard. But Mr. Bush himself did completely retool his campaign. He swiped Mr. McCain's central campaign theme, the need for reform, and appeared with banners declaring, "A Reformer with Results."

Mr. Bush borrowed Mr. McCain's speaking style — more informal and funny. He even tried to pretend that he liked reporters.

But Mr. Bush today is not retooling; he's hunkering down in the bunker. Instead of the Reagan approach of 1987, it's the Nixon approach of 1973. It just increases the national polarization and doesn't help Mr. Bush.

So he should start over. For starters, here are four suggestions:

• It's time for Dick Cheney to announce that he must resign because of poor health. His approval rating is only 29 percent, and his replacement could presumably be somebody far more popular, like Condoleezza Rice.

• Don Rumsfeld should also step down. And just as President Clinton appointed a Republican as secretary of defense, Mr. Bush should appoint a Democrat, like Sam Nunn.

• Mr. Bush should publicly admit mistakes and reach out more to Democrats, and even his critics. Mr. Bush has taken a few steps in this direction in his second term, but not enough.

• Mr. Bush should emphasize policy goals that can generate bipartisan support. Mr. Bush's recent push for alternative energy sources was a fine example of that, as are his efforts to organize a U.N. peacekeeping force to stop genocide in Darfur. A trip to Africa to meet Darfur refugees and see how U.S. programs are fighting AIDS and poverty would help build bridges to critics at home and abroad.

These kinds of moves would completely change the tone of the Bush administration. The obvious question, given my values and positions, is whether it is in the public interest for Mr. Bush to become more effective. But I think it's good for the nation, not just for Republicans, to have a president who can actually govern. If Mr. Bush simply punches the clock aimlessly in his bunker for the next three years — longer than the entire Kennedy presidency — that paralysis will damage America and the world.

Frustrated by the lack of television coverage of the genocide in Darfur, I used a recent column to announce a pledge drive to sponsor a trip by Bill O'Reilly to Darfur. I was deluged by 6,675 pledges, averaging a bit more than $100. The grand total was $727,568, so Mr. O'Reilly will be able to fly first class with the very best satellite phones and fill his water bottles with San Pelegrino.

Unfortunately, Mr. O'Reilly doesn't seem eager to go. But President Bush has begun moving on Darfur, and the Olympian Joey Cheek donated his gold-medal and silver-medal cash bonuses to the Darfur survivors. So come on, Bill — and Oprah, and the rest of you on the little screen — and visit the world's most awful place.