For what seems like an eternity, we have eagerly anticipated January 20, 2009–the day George W. Bush must move out of the White House and slink home to Texas. So dismal has been his tenure that two-thirds of Americans apparently feel the same way, and more than one-third support impeachment. There is discussion in the mainstream press as to whether the Bush presidency ranks as the worst ever. Even the formerly sympathetic Washington press corps seems keen to write “The End.” Sparked by the recent departures of Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and press secretary Tony Snow, the media have taken to calling Bush a lame-duck President whose political capital is spent and whose attention has turned to his civic afterlife: giving high-priced lectures and fussing over his Freedom Institute and presidential library.
But relief over Bush’s last days should not blind us to this central fact: For the next sixteen months, his Administration is the executive branch. It still runs the occupation of Iraq, approves or vetoes laws and budgets, makes political and judicial appointments, issues federal regulations, negotiates treaties and trade agreements and controls a swollen network of surveillance and law enforcement agencies. Indeed, thanks to the implementation of the “unitary executive” theory and the unprecedented use of signing statements, Bush may be the most powerful and dangerous President in history.
Even amid the turmoil of this August’s high-profile departures, the Administration continued to flex its muscles. It asked for–and Congress approved–broadly expanded powers to spy without a warrant on the international phone calls and e-mail of American citizens. Essentially legalizing wiretaps previously conducted in secrecy by the National Security Agency, the law gives the Attorney General and director of national intelligence, both appointed by the President, the authority to approve such surveillance–authority previously held by the judicial branch. The Administration also announced new rules that would require employers to fire any worker whose Social Security number does not match the federal database. These no-match checks, a brazen attempt to create a crisis in order to revive support for Bush’s stalled immigration reforms, could affect millions of undocumented workers and imperil thousands of businesses. Then, with Congress in recess, the Administration sent an edict to state health officials that could deny many thousands of children access to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Earlier, the Senate and House had passed bills that would make S-CHIP available to more kids; Bush has threatened a veto.
Spying on citizens, threatening financial ruin, depriving children of healthcare–it’s hard to imagine a more reckless and unpopular agenda. But this Administration has rarely bothered with political reality; it has imposed its own version of it against the will of Congress and the people.
This fall will test the lame duck’s ability to continue down this path. Democrats in Congress should insist on independent investigations into Attorneygate and other Administration scandals. Also looming are battles over Iraq War funding; reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act; passage of farm and energy bills; approval of free-trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Peru; and hearings over Bush’s next Attorney General nominee. These are not modest proposals. And a continuation of the status quo in Iraq spells disaster. By one rough estimate an Iraqi is killed every ten minutes and an American soldier, every ten hours. And every ten days, $2 billion is taken from our Treasury and pumped into the coffers of Blackwater, Halliburton and other war profiteers.
As a beleaguered public looks forward to the 2008 election and Bush’s departure, anticipation must not induce complacency. Vigorous Congressional resistance is important, but it can only be a partial counterweight. Because this President has amassed extraordinary executive powers, normal checks and balances are insufficient, and there is little Congressional Democrats can do in the face of eleventh-hour regulations and vetoes. This is why during the next sixteen months we must not play a waiting game. There must be a wellspring of public activism and media vigilance. No matter how weak this President may seem, he intends to go out with a roar. Now is not the time for the bleating of sheep.