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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Salvaging a Second-Term Presidency

After U.S. President George W. Bush's disastrous visit to Latin America, it's unnerving to realize that his term still has more than three years to run. An administration with no agenda and no competence would be hard enough to live with at home. But the rest of the world simply can't afford an American government this bad for that long.

In Argentina, Bush, who prides himself on his ability to relate to world leaders face to face, could barely summon the energy to chat with the 33 other leaders there, almost all of whom would be considered friendly to the United States under normal circumstances. He and his delegation failed to get even a minimally face-saving outcome at the collapsed trade talks and allowed a loudmouthed opportunist like the president of Venezuela to steal the show.

It's amazing to recall that when Bush first ran for president, he bragged about his understanding of Latin America, his ability to speak Spanish and his ties with Mexico. But he also made fun of former Vice President Al Gore for believing that nation-building was a job for the United States military.

The White House is in an uproar over the future of Karl Rove, the president's political adviser, and spinning off rumors that some top Cabinet members may be asked to walk the plank. But the central problem is not Karl Rove or Treasury Secretary John Snow or even Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary. It is President Bush himself.

Second terms may be difficult, but the chief executive can still shape what happens. Ronald Reagan managed to turn his messy second term around and deliver -- in great part through his own powers of leadership -- a historic series of agreements that led to the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet empire. Bush has never demonstrated the capacity for such a comeback. Nevertheless, every American has a stake in hoping that he can surprise them.

The place to begin is with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, the dark force behind many of the administration's most disastrous policies, like the invasion of Iraq and the stubborn resistance to energy conservation. Right now, Cheney is busy beating back congressional legislation that would prohibit the torture of prisoners. This is truly a remarkable set of priorities: His former chief aide was indicted, his back is against the wall, and Cheney has declared war on the Geneva Conventions.

Bush cannot fire Cheney, but he could keep his vice president too busy with funerals and study groups to do more harm. The president would still have to turn things around, but this would at least signal the nation and the world that he was in charge, and that the next three years might not be as dreadful as they threaten to be right now.

This comment first appeared as an editorial in The New York Times.