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Is Bush In A Bubble?

That's the question Dick Polman tackles in today's Philadelphia Inquirer:

We have seen this phenomenon before - a cloistered president, fixed in his views and averse to compromise, often at odds with political reality.

Democrat Woodrow Wilson was protected by a first lady who froze out even his closest aides. Democrat Lyndon Johnson raged against his domestic critics, calling them "communists" and "Harvards," and he wound up speaking only at military bases. Republican Richard Nixon was so deep in the bunker during Watergate that his own defense secretary instructed subordinates not to carry out military orders issued by the White House.

It's debatable whether the George W. Bush bubble is equally impervious. But these days, with the President struggling on many fronts, from Iraq to Katrina to the ports flap, even political allies and Republican observers believe Bush is prone to the bunker syndrome; symptoms include tone-deaf politicking, a refusal to fire or discipline failed subordinates, and a reluctance to acknowledge bad news that conflicts with core beliefs.

On balance, Polman's analysis seems a bit overly critical, but he certainly raises the kind of questions that many people, including me, have been asking of late about why the White House seems to be off its game. Explanations range from excesses of loyalty, stubbornness or arrogance on the part of the president to physical and mental exhaustion among the White House staff.

The biggest problem, however, doesn't seem to be that the White House is in denial or detached from reality but that it has such a troubled relationship with Republicans in Congress. Polman quotes GOP veteran Jack Pitney describing the current difficulty:

"This White House needs to adjust to the new landscape. After 9/11, they could pretty much count on the support of congressional Republicans. Today they can't. They used to go up to the Hill and just give orders. They can't anymore. They need to do less talking and more listening, because right now they're stuck with a wildfire in the conservative grass roots."

Robert Novak, who has watched close to half a century of interaction between presidents and Congress, finishes with a similar note in his column today:

Sen. Richard Shelby, whose Banking Committee has jurisdiction of the issue, was silent at first, but only because he was traveling in Europe. When he issued a brief, limited circulation statement last Thursday, it was not good news for the White House. "From Treasury's perspective," he said, "the [foreign acquisitions] process with respect to the Dubai transaction worked perfectly; from the Banking Committee's perspective, it failed miserably." He set hearings for Thursday that will not be pleasant.

The rest of the world may wonder how a relatively routine commercial transaction turned Republican leaders against their president. Frank McKenna, the Canadian ambassador who is leaving Washington this week, has cracked the code by appreciating the existence of two U.S. governments, one executive and the other legislative. That system requires more presidential finesse than was displayed in handling the Dubai contract.

I've already mentioned one potential silver lining from the DPW blow up: that Congress focus its attention and energy on dealing with the legitimate issues surrounding U.S. port security. A second silver lining may be that the White House mends fences and adjusts its attitude toward Republican members of Congress. It might make the difference in salvaging what has been a rather inauspicious second term thus far.