AFTER SEPT. 11, even George W. Bush's harshest critics credited him for leading. Lately, Bush has been doing the opposite.
What does it mean to lead? A real leader puts his own prestige on the line - to educate public opinion, to pursue necessary policies that are sometimes unpopular, and to take responsibility.
Lyndon Johnson took huge risks to redeem the promise of Emancipation and to lead America into a dubious war. He might have survived the bruises of the former were it not for the latter. But in both cases the policies were his own.
Richard Nixon, not America's most honorable president, took responsibility for controversial policies - opening to China, using temporary wage and price controls, attempting to convert welfare to a guaranteed annual income. He won some, lost some, and was reelected overwhelmingly in 1972. Bill Clinton put his presidency at risk to raise taxes on the rich and balance the budget, to end welfare as we knew it, and to get NAFTA enacted. When Clinton failed to get universal health insurance, he didn't blame Hillary.
Now, consider Bush.
He declared that he wants to expand Medicare to include (very) limited coverage of prescription drugs. His political Rasputin, Karl Rove, views this as a top priority to upstage a leading Democratic issue. The House Republicans want to use drug coverage as a wedge to begin privatizing Medicare. Senate Democrats consider that gimmick a deal breaker. A little presidential leadership is in order if Bush really wants a bill. Have you heard him say boo?
Remember the child tax credit? Under the latest tax cut, refund checks go out July 25. But not to some 6 million kids in families where the breadwinner pays payroll tax but no income tax, including many GIs serving in Iraq. Bush pledged to fix this lapse. The Senate voted, 94- 2, to make the change. But the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, says no way. Where is Bush on this one? Who is setting the agenda, Bush or DeLay?
How about Head Start? Candidate Bush pledged to expand it. The radical right wants to end Head Start as a federal entitlement and shift responsibility for the program to the states, where it can be converted to glorified day care (with for-profit and religious sponsors) rather than the effective child development program it has always been.
Last week DeLay temporarily postponed a floor vote because he faced defeat. Which side is Bush on? Finally, there are the famous 16 words in the State of the Union Address. That piece of deliberate deception was blamed on CIA Director George Tenet - except that Tenet had warned the president against relying on the bogus Niger-uranium report as long ago as last October.
It was New York's great mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, who famously said, ''When I make a mistake, it's a beaut.'' George Bush's equivalent is, ''When I make a mistake, it's Tenet's fault.'' (This habit seems to run in the Bush administration. When ground operations in Iraq bogged down, Defense Secretary Rumseld suddenly began describing the war blueprint as ''Tommy Franks's plan.'') Bush is becoming evader-in-chief. Even the electorate is starting to notice.
There is a rule that a column is about one thing. Excuse me for violating it, but I really wanted to write three different columns today, so here is a sampler of the other two:
Did you notice the groundswell of support in Congress for legalizing drug imports from Canada? This is an idiotic way to do the right thing. Drug prices are cheaper up north not because manufacturing costs are lower there but because the Canadian national health program controls drug company prices and profits.
Congress doesn't need a detour via Canada. It just needs to do the right thing directly. Regulate drug prices, and Americans will save not just money on their prescriptions but on needless shipping charges, too. No need to punish the local drugstore just because Congress lacks the nerve to do this reform properly.
Do you find it worrisome that the deficit is the biggest ever and interest rates the lowest in half a century - and the economy is still very soft? I do, and George Bush should. Were it not for the still-reverberating shocks from the deregulation orgy and the stock market bust, 5 percent mortgages and $500 billion deficits should be pushing the economy into the stratosphere. But not this time. Just imagine what a little imported inflation might do. This economy, and this presidency, are a lot shakier than they look.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.
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