Life Without Father

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What would we do without a President? How unsettling is this, to be all but left home alone, or to hear Dad out in the garage breaking things, unaware or indifferent to what's going on in the house?

This week Bush's approval ratings sank to levels that had pollsters quietly whistling through their teeth. It's not just the number, 34% — Truman holds the record, when only 23% approved of the job he was doing in November of 1951, and Nixon fell as low as 24%. (In contrast, among the most beloved in year six of their presidencies were Eisenhower at 64%, Reagan at 63.5% and Clinton at 57%.) What struck the surveyors was Bush's 60% disapproval number, and the fact that 47% stronglydisapprove. That's like trying to climb out of a deep hole filled with big rocks — with new rocks being thrown in each week, labeled War, Katrina, Meirs, Dubai, Deficits, Gas Prices, Cheney, Eavesdropping, Leaks.

Contempt ricochets through quarters of the commentariat that have long given Bush the benefit of the doubt. Through the 2004 campaign, when Don Imus was a genial Kerry supporter, he often made the point that he thought Bush was a decent guy; Imus was no firebreathing Franken. But Wednesday morning Imus kept playing a clip from Bush's speech in Iowa in which he insisted that America's golden fields of corn would rescue us from the environmental and strategic misery of dependence on Middle Eastern oil. The President sounded, Imus said, "trailer-park stupid."

Bush's own allies in Congress have shown themselves no more respectful. Whether or not the President really wants to see spending restrained, lawmakers have shown not the smallest inclination to do so. Social Security reform passed away, and immigration reform is on life support, and Bush's expansive view seems all but irrelevant. Bush was repudiated on the Dubai ports deal, despite the merits of his argument. Lawmakers protective of their own constitutional prerogatives are not meekly letting the White House decide which laws it is inclined to obey.

And this is a Republican Congress.

The optimistic view of what would happen if Democrats regained control of one or both houses in the fall is that it would restore the lost balance to government, and inspire the President to listen more, compromise more, consult more as he shaped the last two years of his Presidency.

Not many people think that's what happens. The darker view is two years of subpoenas and investigations into every act of incompetence and duplicity of the last six years. Nothing moves, because no one agrees and the Congress is too closely split. And the President, fully lame, is powerless to drag it in any direction.

In certain times, one could argue that this is not such a bad thing. A spirit of deadlock and division reduces government to its core functions, inspires local leaders to take the initiative and frees individuals to get on with their lives unhindered by intrusive or ineffective government. Certain stretches of the 1990s felt like that, when the Clinton White House was distracted by its personal and legal troubles and all the energy and enterprise was coming from Silicon Valley and smart city mayors and the private sector.

Except we aren't living in times like that. What wakes me up in the middle of the night is a fear of what it would feel like if America were attacked again, by the next monster storm, or, worse, the next monstrous attack. In the days after 9/11, when our wounds were fresh and deep and desperate, the most powerful pain relief came from the spirit of the response: lines around the block to give blood, flowers left at the firehouses, lawmakers on the steps of Congress declaring there are no Democrats or Republicans, only Americans; the band played the Star Spangled Banner during the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, Dublin's shops closed for a day of mourning, Canadian stores sold out of American flags. WE ARE ALL AMERICANS, was the headline in Le Monde.

What would happen if it happened again, after all that has unfolded since? You can play the preview many ways: a burst of fear, anger and accusation, no pause for reflection before the assignment of blame. A debate over America's motives and conduct in the world that builds on many premises about our duties and designs; but innocence is no longer mentioned. A deeper than ever sense of respect and gratitude to soldiers and rescue workers and first responders, arising from all our doubts about the competence of leaders higher up.

Would Bush be able to do what he did before, find the words, unite the country, set a course and follow it regardless of anyone's misgivings? There is anxious talk about war with Iran: could the President possibly make his case in a way that persuaded two-thirds of the public he was right, as he did three years ago on Iraq?

Here is a fear to unite us, red and blue: not just how we would live without a leader, but what would happen if the President leads without regard to whether anyone is following.