By Howard Gleckman Remember the Teflon Presidency of Ronald Reagan? Well, George W. Bush isn't just covered in Teflon -- it's almost as if he's wearing a halo. Thanks mostly to the events of September 11, people are afraid to criticize his Administration. And even when they do, the complaints are directed at members of his Cabinet or White House staffers. Nobody gets mad at George Bush.
Think about it. Bush enjoys accolades for cracking down on terrorism, while his Attorney General, John Ashcroft, gets blasted for trampling civil liberties. The economy turns sour, and millions of people lose their jobs -- but nobody blames the President. Instead, the verbal asides of blunt-spoken Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill get dissected and criticized in the media.
BUCK STOPS WHERE? This isn't to say the latest decline in the business cycle was Bush's fault. But in the past, people have always ultimately held the occupant of the White House accountable when the economy turned south. Not this time. Polls show Bush's personal popularity remains sky high -- 75% to 80%. And even when rated on his handling of the economy, Bush has the backing of 60% or so of the public.
Then there's the matter of his saber-rattling against Iraq. In recent weeks, the President has not only threatened to topple Saddam Hussein but he has also begun dropping veiled hints that even the use of nuclear weapons might be in play in the war on terrorism.
This either is incredibly reckless or it represents a fundamental change in U.S. policy. It appears to be the only time in history that a U.S. President has so publicly threatened nuclear war against another nation. Even in the depths of the Cold War, no Chief Executive ever talked this way.
Yet, Bush's remarks were barely a one-day story. Reagan once joked about starting a war against the Soviet Union. His comments -- delivered as a microphone check for his weekly radio address and never intended for public consumption -- were debated for weeks. This time, when Bush was deadly serious, hardly a word of criticism was heard, even from the antiwar Left.
LIGHTNING ROD. Inside the Beltway, Bush's ability to stand above the political fray is even more noticeable. For months, congressional Republicans were furious about the Administration's unwillingness to push hard for some business tax breaks that were popular on the Hill. But they never blamed Bush. Instead, they hammered Treasury Secretary O'Neill -- as if O'Neill somehow sabotaged the idea on his own. He may be a bit of a free spirit, but O'Neill doesn't decide legislative strategy. He has, however, become Bush's official economic lightning rod.
Another example: Lawmakers, including many Republicans, are angry that the White House won't release information about contacts between corporate lobbyists, including some top Enron execs, and the White House's energy task force.
This dispute has become a major test of Congress' rights to obtain information from the White House. And it has the potential to embarrass GOP lawmakers, who will have to listen to Democrats accuse them of an Enron coverup if the task-force deliberations contain even a hint of anything embarrassing.
Is anyone mad at Bush? Nope -- they've turned their wrath on Vice-President Dick Cheney. True, it was his task force. But the decision to withhold this information was Bush's.
INSULATED. A lot of this has to do with September 11. Not all of it, however. Bush's lack of defensiveness certainly helps. He's an officeholder clearly comfortable inside his own skin. Also helping is the White House strategy of answering reporters' questions with a focused message that never varies. There's a reason for that: Bush, like his father, values loyalty above all else inside his Administration. Leaks, backdoor grumbling, and finger-pointing are never tolerated.
At the same time, the most hot-button decisions are quietly announced by the departments or agencies, not by the White House and never by Bush himself. All of this insulates the President from the slightest whiff of failure or even controversy.
It's a sweet spot to be in politically. Bush gets all the credit for what's good in America, but none of the blame for what isn't. Who knows if it will last. But for now, Democrats just can't seem to lay a glove on him. Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online