Presidents rarely recover from second-term slumps, but President Bush may be on the verge of at least a modest upturn and perhaps a strong recovery. For sure, his plunge in job approval over the past year has been halted. He's bottomed out. But how significant will his recovery and how durable? Those are the questions.
The Bush decline in 2005 and 2006 was caused, in part, by intensified terrorist attacks in Iraq, the failure of his Social Security reform initiative, and bad luck in the form of Hurricane Katrina and the Dubai ports deal. The president's approval rating in the Gallup Poll plummeted from 51 percent on the day of his second inauguration to 31 percent in May, 16 months later.
But in recent days, Bush has been blessed with good news. Last week, Americans found and killed the chief jihadist in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, eliminating the top strategist and operational leader of the insurgency. And on Monday, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald informed Karl Rove, one of Bush's most influential advisers, that he has no plans to seek an indictment of Rove in the case of a CIA official whose name was disclosed to the press. Zarqawi's death thrilled the White House. The clearing of Rove evoked a sigh of relief.
That wasn't the only news which improved the political environment for Bush and Republicans. In the bellwether special House election in San Diego last week, Democrats failed to pull off an upset and capture the Republican-leaning district. The Democratic candidate got the usual Democratic vote, suggesting a Democratic landslide is unlikely in the midterm election on November 7.
In Washington, Bush's new chief of staff, Josh Bolten, brokered the nomination of a Wall Street powerhouse, Henry Paulson of Goldman Sachs, as Treasury secretary. This countered the conventional wisdom that a weakened Bush would be unable to attract a major figure from the financial community.
There's more: In Iraq, the new prime minister put together a permanent government and filled the sensitive posts of defense and interior minister. Here at home, the economy grew at an astonishing 5.3 percent clip in the first quarter of 2006. And Bolten's tapping of Tony Snow as White House press secretary has proven to be a smart move. In the Gallup Poll, Bush's approval rose to 38 percent — still weak, but a marked improvement.
The timing of the Bush-boosting events is pivotal. If they happened in the days just before November 7 election, they probably wouldn't have much impact on the vote. But coming five months before the election, they may well help Republicans avert the loss of the House or Senate. The public will have time to digest the good news.
Two big issues remain: Iraq and immigration. The president jumped on the Zarqawi breakthrough immediately, meeting with military advisers and traveling to Iraq for a visit symbolizing his commitment to continuing the fight against insurgents. Bush even hinted that a new offensive aimed at driving the insurgents out of Baghdad and Basra may be launched soon.
If the offensive is successful and the president prods Congress into passing a compromise immigration measure, his standing should climb even higher. Those are, however, very big ifs. Producing quick and visible gains in Iraq won't be easy. And the chances of an immigration deal are, at best, 50-50 right now.
Still, without reversing major policies, Bush is considerably better off than he was a month ago. "You've got to keep your head up and stick to it," an aide says. "Sometimes the stars are aligned with you, sometimes they aren't." At the moment, they are.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
By Fred Barnes