With his approval ratings sinking to Nixonian lows and voters punishing congressional Republicans for his Iraq war policy, George W. Bush has barely two years left to rescue his presidency and shape his legacy.
The self-described uniter turned out to be a divider — big time — even within his own party, dragging it to defeat. But it's possible that the new Democratic Congress could come to his rescue.
Despite his party's "thumping" at the polls last week, there were signs that the president didn't really mean it when he said: "There is a great opportunity for us to show the country that we can work together." Exhibit A: his decision to renominate John Bolton — his controversial U.N. ambassador — promptly rekindling an old fight.
Some White House aides reportedly said the president is trying to portray the Democrats as obstructionists, while others insisted he's merely trying to squeeze through as much as possible in the waning days of the Republican majority.
But that could change when the 110th Congress convenes on Jan. 3 — if Democrats can put the national interest ahead of vengeance for more than a decade of being shut out of congressional decision-making, and if President Bush and his aggressive political team genuinely want to leave office with a positive legacy, not just the bloody stain of Iraq.
Both sides will go into the new Congress focusing on independent and moderate voters. Democrats won them over last week by moving more to the center with the election of a number of conservatives — pro-gun, anti-abortion — and Republicans need to recapture those seats if they want to regain their majorities. That's bad news for the extreme wings of both parties and good news for those who want to break the gridlock in Washington.
A move back toward the center could help Republicans win long-elusive Jewish votes. This year's Republican campaign to paint Democrats as increasingly hostile to Israel was a dismal failure, and possibly even created a backlash against attempts to undermine the bipartisan consensus that the Jewish community has painstakingly built.
Democrats won 88 percent of the Jewish congressional vote last week, according to nonpartisan exit polls. That was a reflection of opposition to the Iraq war and the dominant influence of the religious right in the GOP.
But that could change if Republicans focus on lost moderate and independent voters, and work to actually pass important legislation in Congress, not just score political points.
The Democrats have taken two contentious issues off the table — impeachment and threats to cut funding for the war.
The Iraq war is the most critical issue facing the nation, and only by working together can both sides have the political cover they need for making the tough decisions about extracting our troops from that quagmire. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group won't produce any panaceas, but it could be the catalyst Washington needs to develop creative solutions.
Republicans were badly stung by the war last week, and won't want to ride that horse into the next campaign. But time is running out. By the end of 2007, they'll all be in full campaign mode.
An early test for Bush may come on four of his most conservative judicial nominees. Will he try to push them through and provoke a showdown with Democrats, or quietly replace them with more moderate judges?
There is room for compromise on these and other issues if both sides are looking for solutions, not wedge issues to wield in the next election. The growing number of conservative Democrats could make it easier for the president to find that common ground.
Voters just told politicians that they were unhappy with business as usual in Washington and wanted change. The party most voters see as the obstructionist two years from now will be in trouble.
Much of that is up to President Bush. He has to decide whether his final years in office will be filled with angry confrontation or productive cooperation with the Democratic-led Congress. That will do much to determine how history judges his presidency.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist.