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Things look good now, but things change

George W. Bush will never again enjoy the reputation for effectiveness, leadership and integrity he developed after Sept. 11.

George W. Bush will never again enjoy the reputation for effectiveness, leadership and integrity he developed after Sept. 11.

He squandered those assets in the sands of Iraq and the muck of New Orleans. Today he hangs as an albatross around the neck of every candidate campaigning under the Republican banner.

But assuming that whatever the climate is today will persist indefinitely is one of the most pervasive and dangerous fallacies in politics. Things change.

Democrats who go into this cycle assuming next November will be a carbon copy of this one do so at their peril. Bush will not regain his earlier luster, but by November he may be merely a moderately unpopular president, rather than an extremely unpopular one.

Having forfeited his personal assets, President Bush is at the mercy of events. Those events can cut either way and, as an incumbent, he has some power to shape them. Two factors above all determine this President's standing - the economy and the war. An expanding economy and a contracting war will at least marginally improve Bush's approval ratings.

Start with the war. There is little doubt that the failure in Iraq has been one of the most significant drags on Bush and his party. I've argued here before that failure is evidenced by the lack of clear purpose and the absence of continuing progress toward specific goals. So far, the aimless descent into violence has been an unambiguous sign of failure. That seems unlikely to change.

But the administration does appear poised to alter one aspect of our policy - next year, it will announce troop reductions. Our ambassador to Baghdad confirmed the widely expected withdrawal just the other day.

We have no perfect historical analogy on which to draw (they never are, really), but when Richard Nixon announced he would withdraw 25,000 troops from Vietnam, his approval rating shot up 12 points. Democrats will rightly argue that Bush's withdrawal does not constitute a real plan, and the White House itself seems hell-bent on sabotaging the announcement, diminishing any political benefit it might derive.

But when all is said and done, a withdrawal, especially followed by a second one later in the year, will likely create the appearance of progress. Appearing to reduce the scope of our deployment in Iraq will probably increase the president's approval rating, albeit by something less than Nixon's dozen points.

But Iraq is not the only variable at work. In truth, the president has few levers with which to affect the economy. But by refusing to confront the deficit he has created, Bush is working the leverage he has overtime, creating a reckless short-term expansion that serves the country poorly but his political interests well.

Bush is rejecting the budget-cutting demands of the right because, as every Keynesian knows, shoving all that money into the economy creates jobs and increases incomes. Of course, in this case the distributional impacts are quite unfair and the cost will be huge when the bill comes due, but as a short-term political strategy it will help.

From the public point of view, gasoline prices and healthcare costs are the leading economic indicators. Falling gas prices “signal” an improved outlook.

Voters are getting the signals. Consumer confidence is improving and is now at its highest level since Hurricane Katrina. While still high, the number of people giving the economy negative ratings has declined a bit.

Bush will never get well, but with fewer boots on the ground in Iraq, more jobs at home and lower gas prices, he may get better. The good news is that as long as Democrats don't try to assume our way to victory we can win even with a somewhat less unpopular George Bush.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.