It is just a year since George Bush secured a convincing second term as President of the United States. Last week was a bad week, but not a week he cannot recover from. The loss of the Vice President’s Chief of Staff, Lewis “Scotter” Libby, as well as his candidate for Associate Justice on the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers, are blows, but such blows are not unusual early in the second term of a President. He will recover, using his State of the Union address in January as the launch point for his final years as President.
There are six things he needs to do to secure a place in history more favourable than seems possible right now. First, he needs to clean house. A significant shake up of his administration, including a new Vice President, would send a signal that the President has got the message. He needs to show strong support for his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, one of the better ambassadors for the US in recent times and a potential Presidential candidate. He needs to stop pure patronage appointments and start to surround himself with talent.
Second, recognizing that the US economy is a “clear and present” danger to his legacy - government spending is too high, inflation is growing, consumer debt is high and there is a need to stimulate the economy is some regions and slow it in others – he needs to act to show leadership on economic stability and growth. His sound appointment last week of a new Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Professor Ben Barnanke, signals that he understands the need to return to fiscal conservatism. He needs to recognize too that China, India and Brazil pose real threats to the competitiveness of US companies and act in a way that promotes free trade.
Third, he needs to work very hard to find a new place for the US in the changing geo-politics of the world. The US has lost many allies in the last five years, not least because the US is becoming increasingly inward focused on its own needs and its own understanding of the world. It needs to work with others to either significantly reinvent the UN and its role in the twenty first century, or lead others to replace the UN with institutions that work. It needs to build coalitions around global warming, global health and peacekeeping in which the US and others are seen to make a difference. Rather than being the “bad guy” of geo-politics, it is time for the US to step up to the plate with new allies – China, India, the EU – and chart out a course for this century.
Fourth, he needs to address the concerns that emerged following Katrina about the thirty seven million American’s living in poverty. They need better access to health care, a reform of social security and a strong sense that American society recognizes them as valuable contributors.
Fifth, he needs to strengthen alliances within this continent. Expanding NAFTA, respecting the role of NAFTA in settling disputes between the US and its partners, and building a stronger relationships with other South American states through the development and expansion of the role of the Organization of American States. As the economy of Mexico and Brazil expand rapidly – with Brazil expected to be a major player on the world stage the next decade – the US needs to be “ahead of the game” and work towards alliances and partnerships that support trade, support a continental health strategy and strengthen the role of the Americas in the world.
Finally, he needs to do something about the environmental issues that concern many Americans and their neighbours to the North and South. The US Government wisely did not sign up to Kyoto, but has recently acknowledged that global warming is a real danger. Over the last 15 years environmental foundations, governments and other organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into combating global warming. We have strikingly little to show for it. Kyoto will make little difference. What is really needed are some bold moves by the world’s largest polluters – the US is one of them. It has started to act, in part through the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate and in part through State based legislation requiring emission reduction. Strong leadership on this file would reposition the US in a very significant way.
Behind all of this there is Iraq – a quagmire of ideology, politics, militarism and money. Bush would secure massive gains in popularity if he announced, after the Iraq elections in December, a phased plan for withdrawal. It may not be possible, but it is needed.
Some commentators in Canada see our dispute with the US over softwood lumber, respect for NAFTA and ongoing issues with beef as major issues. Condoleezza Rice was right to put these in perspective during her recent visit. Given all that is going on, these are small issues between partners – there are literally hundreds of such disputes between members of the EU, some of which have lasted far longer and involve much more money than our softwood lumber dispute, despite clear rulings from the European Courts. Canada needs to find ways of encouraging and supporting the US. That requires leadership from Canada – a complaining leadership is less likely to be influential than an imaginative and creative one.
Will Bush bounce back? Yes he will. Will it make a difference to the relationship with other countries, including Canada ? Absolutely. Will it be soon ? Not likely. Will it be dramatic ? Watch the State of the Union address to see, but yes has to be the answer, otherwise Bush will fail the legacy test set for any second term President – “will he go down in history as a success or failure?”. Watch this space.