In this Economic Crisis, President Bush Finds Himself Short of Political Capital

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Historian Robert Dallek sees some parallels to the failure of President Herbert Hoover to adequately address the economic meltdown of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Dallek points out that Hoover "couldn't let go of his ideology"—notably his belief that the markets would eventually correct themselves. That didn't happen, and Hoover became a figure of ridicule for generations. "In a crisis, you do need a strong and effective president," Dallek says. "And a president has to be very careful how he uses his political influence. If he squanders or loses it, it's injurious to the country, and that's where we are."

Today, Dallek adds, "we have a power vacuum. President Bush is not just a lame duck. He's lost his standing and his credibility. People don't trust what he says. He's cried wolf too many times," such as in the run-up to the Iraq war when he argued that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. They were never found.

Princeton historian Julian Zelizer agrees. "The system needs a strong president at a time of crisis," he says, because no other institution can bring people together like the chief executive. "When you have tough times, that's when presidential leadership counts for a lot, and that's what we don't have now," Zelizer adds. The historian points out that Ronald Reagan retained a large amount of public support until the end of his presidency. And he was able to win congressional support for important late-term legislation, including a treaty limiting intermediate-range nuclear weapons, which was a tough sell on Capitol Hill.

In contrast, Bush has little political capital left. "He's a lame duck with empty pockets," Zelizer says, adding that whatever compromises Congress might enact to rescue the financial system, they will have to be forged by skillful legislators, not by Bush. Just as important, the financial crisis appears so severe and the "rescue" so expensive that it will impose serious limits on the next president.

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