The mixed blessing of incumbency

April 21, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Incumbency is supposed to be a huge advantage for a president seeking re-election. The immense prestige of the office, its sundry trappings and the heavy free television coverage of his every movement usually give him a tremendous edge over any challenger.

Not the least benefit in a campaign season is how incumbency serves as a magnet for fund-raising events yielding millions of dollars wherever Air Force One sets down. The Bush campaign is expected to raise at least $200 million between now and the Republican National Convention in New York in August.

Challenger John Kerry's campaign is setting fund-raising records for the Democrats, but they are being eclipsed by the GOP effort that has the man in the White House as its main attraction.

At the same time, one drawback of incumbency over the first three years of the Bush tenure - a struggling economy hampered by a jobless recovery - seems somewhat on the mend now. The Democrats consequently have been obliged to turn their criticism more toward what until a year ago had been perceived as President Bush's strong suit - foreign policy and leadership of the war on terrorism.

This is where incumbency is now beginning to seem a mixed blessing for him. A series of events over recent weeks - from the nationally televised 9/11 commission hearings to the publication of two critical books - have put Mr. Bush's foreign policy stewardship in a particularly unfavorable glare.

Testimony before the 9/11 hearings has indicated missed opportunities to detect the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington as well as inept cooperation between the CIA and the FBI and allegations of presidential inattention or even indifference to the terrorist threat in the months before the tragedies.

Both George J. Tenet, Mr. Bush's CIA director, and John Ashcroft, his attorney general, came under sharp questioning about how effectively they kept the president informed during the summer of 2001, when he was vacationing at his Texas ranch amid reports circulating within his intelligence agencies of al-Qaida agents taking flight training.

In one of the books, Mr. Bush's former counterterrorism expert, Richard A. Clarke, charged that the president did little in his seven months in the job to address the terrorist threat and was more focused at the time of the attacks on invading Iraq.

In the other book, The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, who had quoted the president in an earlier tome as saying that before Sept. 11, 2001, he didn't "feel a sense of urgency" about bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, has now painted him in an even more damaging light.

Mr. Woodward reports that Mr. Bush secretly began planning for an invasion of Iraq barely two months after the 9/11 attacks and privately told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to order Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander for the region, to start work quietly on the plan to topple Saddam Hussein. During a 60 Minutes interview with Mr. Woodward on Sunday, a TV clip was shown of General Franks flatly denying any such plan was in the works.

Mr. Woodward's book also reinforces a picture of conflict within the White House over the invasion, with the president only later informing Secretary of State Colin L. Powell of the plan. It describes how Mr. Bush elicited Mr. Powell's support to make the case to the United Nations for invading Iraq, which he had opposed.

Even before Mr. Woodward's book hit the stores and TV, Mr. Bush trotted out one of an incumbent's supposedly most advantageous tools - the presidential news conference. His performance was roundly criticized as a warmed-over rehash of his reasons for the Iraq invasion and rated a particularly inept presentation under uncommonly sharp press interrogation.

At a time when the Bush campaign has been hard at work reminding voters of Senator Kerry's inconsistencies regarding the Iraq war, all of these events have been diversions, drawing increasingly unfavorable attention to Mr. Bush's past and current role as a wartime president - until recently his strongest argument for re-election.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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