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That sinking feeling

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Have you noticed it too? That sinking feeling?

Over the past month, there's been a subtle but unmistakable shift in the public perceptions of President Bush. And not one for the better.

The evidence is in the worrisome new poll numbers and the oh-so-speedy effort to get out ahead of the calls for an Iraq inquiry. The press treatment is more sour. And a mix of unease and impatience is starting to emanate from Republican circles.

One more gambit

Some causes are obvious: The rush of approbation over the capture of Saddam Hussein has subsided. The economy, which looked to be on fire six weeks ago, now seems healthy but not remarkable. The Weapons of Mass Destruction imbroglio is back in the headlines. And the sheer magnitude of the fiscal crisis facing the country is again on display.

But the president's deeper problem stems from increasing doubts that his White House is -- to employ an overused phrase -- on the level, that every new proposal isn't simply one more gambit for short-term political gain, regardless of the consequences.

What has helped turn the tide is a string of crass and clumsy political gambits ranging from the president's immigration proposal to the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't plan for a trip to Mars and the new brouhaha over budgetary shenanigans with the prescription drug plan.

What did these three political plays have in common?

Earth to Mars

Not one of them was well thought-out on its own terms, and none had much to do with the president's political agenda.

The clearest example was the plan to send men to Mars. This wasn't a real policy proposal.

The whole thing was never even meant to happen. It was supposed to be a campaign sound bite to give a running start to the State of the Union rollout and a bullet point for the president's onward-and-upward-with-optimism re-election theme.

Had this been a serious proposal, it would have required a vast national effort costing, in all likelihood, hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet when it didn't strike a chord with voters or the Sunday shows, it got tossed aside without a second thought. It wasn't a policy proposal. It was a political ploy.

And the White House cut it loose so unceremoniously that that unlovely reality was impossible to miss.

In isolation, that wouldn't have been a big deal. But it fits a pattern.

Take the president's immigration-reform proposal. It's not that some sort of immigration reform along these lines lacks all merit.

But no one thought that this proposal was actually going to pass through this Congress. And, more to the point, it was pretty clear that the president didn't care.

That wasn't the point. The aim wasn't to pass a bill but to peel some of the Hispanic vote away from the Democrats. The whole point of the proposal was simply announcing the proposal -- a fact that became painfully evident as analysts began working over the plan and seeing just how sloppily it had been thrown together.

Packing a bigger punch

For the past three years, Washington has tended to look at these political gambits from the White House and judge them on the basis of their political acumen rather than their substance or likely real-world repercussions.

So, for instance, with the immigration proposal, few thought much of it as policy. But almost everyone agreed that the president's crack political operation had managed to stick it to the Democrats in fine fashion.

When it passed late last year, the prescription drug benefit bill was viewed in the same way.

Since the politics were brilliant, most Republicans and pundits set aside their suspicions that it was questionable in policy terms and blew an even bigger hole in the country's long-term fiscal outlook.

That's why the news that the cost is even higher than advertised -- and that the White House probably knew it all along -- is packing a bigger punch than is usual for revelations about budgeting shenanigans.

It's brought all those latent suspicions to the surface.

Political to the core

Suddenly these serial political gambits look less like so many examples of canny politics than sign after sign that everything this administration does is political to the core. Besides tax cuts and parceling out pork to favored constituencies, there's very little this White House does in domestic policy that isn't for short-term political gain, regardless of the consequences.

A lot of this has been clear for some time. But, of late, the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. have been making it just a little too obvious.

And now those folks are starting to pay a price.

Joshua Micah Marshall is a contributor to The Hill, a Washington D.C. political newspaper where this article first appeared.

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