On Tuesday, President Bush popped in for a surprise visit to the Sterling Family Restaurant, a homey diner in Peoria, Ill. It’s a scene that has been played out many times before by this White House and others: a president mingling among regular Americans, who, no matter what they might think of his policies, are usually humbled and shocked to see the leader of the free world standing 10 feet in front of them.
But on Tuesday, the surprise was on Bush. In town to deliver remarks on the economy, the president walked into the diner, where he was greeted with what can only be described as a sedate reception. No one rushed to shake his hand. There were no audible gasps or yelps of excitement that usually accompany visits like this. Last summer, a woman nearly fainted when Bush made an unscheduled visit for some donut holes at the legendary Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant in Chicago. In Peoria this week, many patrons found their pancakes more interesting. Except for the click of news cameras and the clang of a dish from the kitchen, the quiet was deafening.
“Sorry to interrupt you,” Bush said to a group of women, who were sitting in a booth with their young kids. “How’s the service?” As Bush signed a few autographs and shook hands, a man sitting at the counter lit a cigarette and asked for more coffee. Another woman, eyeing Bush and his entourage, sighed heavily and went back to her paper. She was reading the obituaries. “Sorry to interrupt your breakfast,” a White House aide told her. “No problem,” she huffed, in a not-so-friendly way. “Life goes on, I guess.”
It’s hard to predict if Tuesday is a preview of what is to come for Bush in his final two years in office. While the calendar shows that he still has more than 700 days at the White House, Bush is struggling for relevancy in the same way many other second-term presidents have. But Bush’s burden seems much harder than other presidents in recent memory. He is weighed down by an increasingly unpopular war, and his efforts to stay atop the news cycle have been overshadowed by the battle over who will replace him in 2009. While the 24-hour cable-news networks used to carry most of Bush’s speeches live, that’s no longer the norm. On Wednesday, Bush went to Wall Street to deliver remarks on the economy. CNN and MSNBC carried portions of the speech live, but Fox News Channel, a network that has been viewed as sympathetic to this White House, did not, opting instead to air reports on immigration and the 2008 presidential race. At least Bush got a raucous reception from traders (typically a GOP-friendly crowd) when he paid a surprise visit to the New York Stock Exchange trading floor.
Bush is trying to change the tide—or at least, hold off on the lame duck title for as long as possible—by hitting the road to talk about domestic policy priorities and subjects beyond Iraq. But the latest poll numbers aren’t encouraging. According to the most recent NEWSWEEK Poll , 58 percent of those surveyed “personally wish” Bush’s presidency were over. At the same time, Bush’s approval rating dropped to 30 percent after his State of the Union address last week, according to the poll.
This week's focus on the economy marks another extraordinary attempt by the White House to generate news for a beleaguered president in his seventh year in office. Wednesday's state of the economy speech was the third part of what would normally be the State of the Union address. Traditionally, presidents deal with both the economy and foreign affairs, along with domestic policy, in their main address to Congress.
But this year Bush's aides say they were forced to break up the speech because of their rollout of the new approach to Iraq just two weeks before the State of the Union. However, that earlier speech on Iraq did not stop the president from talking about Iraq in his State of the Union. And there's no good reason why he didn't focus on the economy in the same address to Congress.
Except for White House opportunism. By breaking up the speech, Bush's aides are trying to generate a monthlong campaign of major speeches instead of the usual one-week approach of the State of the Union. And this just happens to be the first month when Democrats have taken control of Congress and have their own megaphone for the first time in the Bush presidency. For good measure, the White House has been granting presidential TV interviews this week—to business and economic correspondents at ABC News and Fox News. Just to underscore the message about the economy, of course.
Will it work? Unfortunately for this White House, polls find that the public not only doesn’t believe that the economy is getting better, they largely don’t give Bush credit for gains in the economy. According to a Gallup poll released last week, a majority of those polled—53 percent—believe economic conditions are getting worse. Meanwhile, in a poll conducted two weeks ago, Gallup found that just 45 percent approved of Bush’s handling of the economy—a number that has been virtually unchanged in recent months.