Is it just us, or does George W. Bush's surprise side trip to Afghanistan today suggest a certain degree of panic at the White House? The president stopped in Afghanistan en route to India for lunch with President Hamid Karzai, a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new U.S. Embassy and a pep talk for U.S. troops. At a brief news press availability with Karzai, Bush wasn't asked about Iraq or Dubai but rather Osama bin Laden -- a topic he seemed more than happy to address. More than four years after vowing to capture him "dead or alive," Bush said he's still "confident" that the al-Qaida leader will be brought to justice.
We suppose the president was just trying to bolster the Karzai government and U.S. troops faced with a sharp increase in attacks from the Taliban and others. But the trip sure reminds us of one of those Southwest Airlines commercials -- the ones in which some poor soul experiences some small humiliation at work, and an announcer asks, "Want to get away?"
Only for Bush, the humiliations aren't so small. The president's approval rating hit 34 percent in a CBS News poll this week -- a number that's the lowest of his presidency, equal to his father's lowest low and worse than anything Bill Clinton ever suffered. Americans disapprove of their president on virtually every front: They don't like the war in Iraq, they're divided on the economy, his State of the Union initiatives haven't excited much of anyone -- don't even mention the failed Social Security push from the last time around -- and the Dubai Ports World deal has caused even the president's supporters to question his national security credibility.
The Washington Post reports today that Republican politicians "who once marched in lock step behind their president on national security are increasingly willing to challenge him in an area considered his political strength." Maybe that's because they disagree with how he's handling national security -- it's Iraq, the Dubai Ports World deal, again, plus qualms, even if they don't lead to much, about the Patriot Act, warrantless spying and the like -- or maybe it's just that national security isn't such a strong suit for Bush anymore. Even when polls showed that Americans disapproved of everything else he was doing, the president carried majority support on the way he was handling the war on terrorism. (Americans seemed to separate that war from the war in Iraq, even if the president says they're the same thing.) But that's not the case anymore. For the first time ever, the CBS News poll handed Bush a sub-50 number on the way he's handling the war on terrorism. Only 43 percent of the poll's respondents said they approve of the president's performance now, down nine percentage points since January.
The Post quotes one Republican campaign consultant who says the CBS poll results are "pretty shattering." The paper talks of gallows humor among White House aides, of complaints about the "Murphy's Law" quality of events of late. In the old days, a few Bush and Cheney speeches about the terrorists who want to hit us might have set things straight again. They'll surely stick with that show -- Dick Cheney was doing it again Tuesday -- but the White House needs a flashier stage set to get the message across now. With Iraq in flames and Ground Zero a little too obvious, an afternoon in Afghanistan will have to do.