The Note: Mincing and Parsing

WASHINGTON, Mar. 16

With the United States facing so many difficult challenges at home and abroad, The Note decided to convene our usual focus groups of relatives and friends and friends of friends to get a sense of what real people are thinking about the nation's leaders, problems, and the future.

As always, the group -- convened by webcam through Yahoo Messenger by a vendor we call "Frank" -- consisted of:

-- Our cousin Terri, a homemaker from Lindlay, Ohio

-- Our college roommate's brother Larry, a pharmaceutical sales rep from Tampa, Florida.

-- Our former travel agent, Mariah, a travel agent in Tempe, Arizona.

-- A guy we met on Outward Bound in '96, Drew, a trucker/songwriter from Rafton, Minnesota.

It is always great to hear real voices, saying the darndest things about the issues they confront around the kitchen tables of America. We started out asking them about Iraq, but, interestingly, they had other things on their minds.

Larry:

Unless Cheney, Card, and/or Rove depart, any new person will have trouble wielding much influence. But Coats seems good.

Terri agreed, and added:

Unless the President is willing and able to make policy changes, a new person helping with PR or Congress isn't likely to fix much. And can Don Evans really tell the President things he doesn't want to hear?

Drew, clearly agitated, had a different perspective:

The White House staff has spent hours and hours trying to figure out what to do about Iraq -- it is hard to imagine a new person suddenly solving what is the big problem. The President's main problem is with the American people, and bringing in a new senior adviser is not going to matter to any real people. Howard Baker should mind his own bees' wax.

Then Mariah, who had been quiet the whole time, said this:

The steady drumbeat of weak poll numbers, the apparent quagmire in Iraq, a series of bad mistakes and bad judgments, widespread calls for a staff shake-up, and a Congress filled with people who do not like, trust, or respect the competence of the White House.

This is what President Bush faces now -- and for the foreseeable future.

The State of the Union seems to have done nothing to change the President's fortunes.

His legislative agenda is neither moving swiftly nor dramatic enough to have a big impact on the 2006 midterm elections.

The negative known unknowns (possible Fitzgerald indictments, possible Abramoff-related indictments, more bad news out of Iraq or Iran) are more numerous than the positive ones (catching bin Laden and what else?).

As narrow as the playing field is in terms of competitive seats, some congressional and Bush-related Republicans now believe they can lose control of the House and/or the Senate even without the Democrats having a message. Republicans worry that even their national security trump card (circa 2002 and 2004) might not work this time.

If you are waiting for the "on the other hand" part of this analysis, your wait is over, but don't expect much.

In terms of the legislative agenda, it is possible (although not likely) that congressional Republicans

-- can pass a budget that somehow helps them

-- can pass an immigration bill that somehow helps them

-- can pass ethics reform that somehow helps them

-- can pass tax cuts that somehow helps them

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