Conventional wisdom these days holds that president George W. Bush is a lame duck. It’s not hard to see why: he only has one and a half years left in office, and the primaries to choose his successor start in six months. Meanwhile, the United States is bogged down in Iraq, and a Republican revolt may soon force Bush to change course. Comprehensive immigration reform has failed, and Bush’s “fast track” trade-promotion authority expired at the end of June.
But the conventional wisdom is wrong. The president retains the ability to do a great deal, especially in foreign policy; the question is whether he has the will and flexibility to use that power wisely.
To understand why Bush still has so much power, remember that the U.S. Constitution and political system give the executive most of the initiative in foreign-policy making. Congress’s powers are modest. The Senate must approve ambassadors and treaties, but few are sent its way so late in a president’s term. Congress also gets to declare war, but no formal declaration has been made in more than half a century. While Congress still must approve spending for foreign adventures, the president can still do a great deal without any explicit financial commitment.
What does this mean for Bush? In Iraq, he could propose a new policy that splits the difference between the surge, which isn’t working, and withdrawal by a fixed date, which could lead to chaos and harm America’s reputation. Such a compromise would cut the number of U.S. troops by more than half, scale back their combat role and relocate many away from Baghdad. It could win bipartisan backing and reduce military costs while still giving Iraq needed support.