There was no shortage of chest-thumping last week at the White House. When House conservatives voted to sustain President Bush's veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), White House spokeswoman Dana Perino gleefully told reporters, "We won this round on S-CHIP." Earlier in the week, Bush justified denying health insurance to four million children by claiming that vetoes show he is still "relevant." "That's one way to ensure that I'm in the process," he said during a press conference.
The media happily joined this celebration, picking up the White House's talking points. On Friday, The New York Times reported, "For now, the insurance vote stands as the latest example of how Mr. Bush can still get his way on Capitol Hill. Through artful use of veto threats and his veto pen, Mr. Bush has fended off attempts to force a change of course in Iraq," among other policies. Roll Call Executive Editor Mort Kondracke wrote that "there is some truth" to the White House claim that "events are turning" in Bush's favor. The next day, the Associated Press chimed in with a headline proclaiming, "Analysis: Bush still relevant on Hill."
Since when did the veto become an indicator of a president's strength? In reality, Bush is playing defense, forced to rely on vetoes and executive orders. The Democratic-led Congress has backed him into a corner, refusing to take up his policy priorities and instead sending him progressive bills he opposes. Congress passes bills, Bush swats them down.
The veto is actually a tool of last resort. As Rutgers University professor Ross K. Baker told the Associated Press, "It's the veto, and the veto alone, that is the last line of defense for a president whose administration's life is waning away." Bush did all he could to threaten lawmakers, but he was ultimately powerless from stopping 69 senators and 265 representatives from voting to expand S-CHIP.
The fact that the House was unable to override Bush's veto has no bearing on the chamber's Democratic leadership. Opponents of Bush's veto actually picked up eight extra votes from the original September roll call passing the bill. Forty-four Republicans broke rank and joined Democrats to vote for the override last week, whereas just two Democrats voted to sustain Bush's veto.
Historically, it's incredibly rare for Congress to override a presidential veto. President Bill Clinton issued 36 vetoes; Congress overcame just two of them. Between 1989 and 1993, Congress defeated only one of President George H.W. Bush's 29 vetoes. Going back even further, lawmakers during President Harry Truman's administration overrode 12 vetoes -- out of 180.
Bush's weakness is reflected in the fact that his major domestic policy initiatives have floundered. First there was the failed 2005 campaign to privatize Social Security, to which the administration devoted more than 100 government officials, 228 public events, and at least $2.8 million of taxpayers' money. Then in his 2006 and 2007 State of the Union addresses, Bush promised to expand his health savings accounts to fix the health care crisis. These plans -- tax-free savings accounts combined with high-deductible insurance policies -- were widely criticized as too expensive and unrealistic, and were forgotten.
More recently, Bush was unable to use the institutional power of the presidency to convince his right-wing allies to embrace his immigration reform proposal. In fact, solidly conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) wanted the President to "back off."
In August, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joel Kaplan insisted that the Bush administration still has an "ambitious agenda." "When we come back in the fall, the Congress is going to have a full plate in front of it," he said. But even the President's conservative allies aren't buying this spin. Right-wing pundits Charles Krauthammer and Fred Barnes have both publicly asserted that Bush has "no agenda" anymore. Bush himself acknowledged last month that he carries little weight, especially on the issue of Iraq. "People listen to [Gen. David Petraeus], not to me," said Bush, who is nevertheless fond of referring to himself as "the Decider."
The American public also has a low opinion of Bush's relevance. As early as last January, 71 percent said they viewed Bush as a "lame duck," and 58 percent wished the Bush presidency "were simply over."
But just because the American people wish it doesn't make it so. Bush can still do a lot of damage during his remaining months in office. Outgoing presidents often resort to executive orders and regulations to leave their mark on U.S. policy and avoid working with the legislative branch -- in fact, they're the only options when facing an opposition legislative branch. In February, U.S. News and World Report reported that White House advisers were looking around for ways to "jump-start" Bush's final two years, "including issuing executive orders to get things done without having to ask for support from the Democratic-controlled Congress."
In January, Bush signed Executive Order 12866, putting political appointees -- rather than experienced civil servants -- in charge of regulatory agencies. House Oversight Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) lamented that the move allowed the "political staff at the White House to dictate decisions on health and safety issues, even if the government's own impartial experts disagree."
More recently, Bush signed an executive order on July 20, restarting a controversial CIA interrogation program that allows the agency to use coercive interrogation techniques on detainees at the agency's "black sites."
The media are acting like this state-of-play -- Congress pushing progressive policies only to be stymied by a lame duck's veto pen -- is a surprise. The New York Times claimed that Bush's use of veto threats and vetoes is a "feat Democrats would never have imagined when they pushed Republicans out of power a year ago." The Associated Press wrote, "Democrats, to their shock, have learned that the 2006 elections did not yield a mandate to start winding down the Iraq war."
Reporters were perhaps the only ones, then, who didn't expect Bush to continue opposing progressive policies. Democrats won a majority in the House and the Senate after the 2006 elections, but they did not get the supermajority needed to overcome Bush's vetoes. Without a dramatic change of heart by one side, this outcome virtually guaranteed partisan clashes. And ultimately, it's much easier for one man to reject a bill than for two-thirds of the House and Senate to vote together.
The 110th Congress has nevertheless aggressively pushed legislation such as the S-CHIP expansion, which 81 percent of the public supports. In April, six in 10 Americans supported congressional legislation to withdraw from Iraq, and 57 percent later disagreed with Bush's decision to veto that bill. Just because Bush chooses to ignore a mandate doesn't mean it's not there.
Earlier this week, Bush chided Congress, telling reporters that the legislative body "has little to show for all the time that has gone by." But in reality, 110th Congress has had more roll call votes this year than any other Congress in history, almost doubling the number under the previous Congress. It is Bush who has little to show, unable to even convince Congress to take up his priorities.
Bush has so far vetoed fewer bills than any president since James Garfield, who was in office for less than a year and issued no vetoes. But expect more in the next two years. In his first six years, Bush vetoed just one bill. In less than one year under this new Congress, Bush has been forced to issue three.
As he prepared to leave public life, Karl Rove wrote a piece for the National Review predicting that history "will judge the 43rd president as a man more than worthy of the great office the American people twice entrusted to him." The President of the United States is one of the most powerful people in the country, if not in the world. He should not have to insist to the White House press corps that he is "in the process" on the Hill. Bush's conduct last week was not of a man worthy of this great office, but a man struggling for significance.