Carl Leubsdorf --Bush spends final months locking in his legacy

As he nears his final months in the White House, President Bush seems intent on doing everything possible to protect his major international initiatives from easy reversal by a Democratic successor.

It’s a familiar pattern for outgoing presidents, though the controversial nature of some Bush policies could be a prescription for pitched partisan battles if or when the next president seeks to reverse them.

The principal example, of course, is Iraq. Bush is expected to take Gen. David Petraeus’ advice to delay troop withdrawals after reaching the pre-surge level in July, helping him to surmount political pressure for major reductions for most of his remaining months in office.

That means Bush’s successor probably will face an early decision on whether to begin significant withdrawals, rather than continue an already established policy of reducing U.S. military presence.

Bush is also pushing ahead in two other areas where a successor might pursue a different course.


One is his controversial plan to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The president sought to portray last weekend’s discussions with outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin as an agreement to proceed with such a system, while the Russians stressed the failure to agree on details.

Just as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton oppose Bush’s decision to maintain current U.S. troop levels in Iraq, so too are they skeptical about his proposed missile defense plan.

That means supporters will be able to portray any decision against proceeding as a reversal of an established policy — and perhaps suggest it was made to mollify the Russians.

Bush also is trying to lock in his approach on trade by pressing for fast approval of a agreement with Colombia opposed by many Democrats — including Clinton and Obama. By submitting it under so-called "fast track" authority, Bush hopes to force a Democratic Congress to pass something that a Democratic successor would be unlikely to propose.

In all three cases, Bush is totally consistent in pushing policies he has championed throughout his presidency. His approach is similar to his repeated efforts to hamstring his successors fiscally by extending his tax cuts.

And he certainly seems to be doing so in the knowledge that his successor may oppose things he considers essential.

That certainly would be the case if Obama or Clinton is the next president. Republican Sen. John McCain would produce more continuity with these Bush policies.

But even electing the all-but-certain GOP nominee wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a seamless transition from one Republican president to the next.


For now, despite continued opposition from many Democrats, Bush again should be able to withstand congressional efforts to limit his efforts in Iraq. Lacking the votes to win, it is unclear how hard lawmakers will try to limit war funding or challenge his planned agreement with the Iraqi government for the indefinite stationing of U.S. troops.

That’s why this week’s debate may be less important as one more round of such skirmishing than as a preview of the fall campaign.

Indeed, the president’s initiatives and the Democratic responses underscore the fact that it is Bush’s policies that are at stake in this election, regardless of the names on the ballot.

Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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