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Commentary: Bush should do something to stop crisis

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  • Julian Zelizer: Lame-duck presidents are assumed to have no real power
  • He says presidents have been effective and productive while lame ducks
  • Zelizer says Carter and Reagan accomplished key things as lame ducks
  • Zelizer: Bush should seek compromise on auto bailout, economic stimulus
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.

Julian Zelizer says presidents have accomplished much in the final days of their terms.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- The lame-duck president is believed to be one of the more impotent figures in American politics -- a commander in chief who is unable to do much because he lacks political muscle.

Legislators know he'll be out of power after January 20. Very often the lame-duck president is deeply unpopular and has lost most goodwill even from members of his own party.

This is certainly the case for President George W. Bush. The president finishes his term as one of the most unpopular presidents in modern history. Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 and this year, they expanded the size of their majority significantly.

There is still the potential for a filibuster-proof Senate. Pundits, including some conservatives, feel the coalition Ronald Reagan built in 1980 has fallen apart. Bush was the captain of the Republican Titanic as it sank.

But Bush does not have to sit on his hands until January 20. Despite the conventional wisdom, lame-duck presidents can be effective.

After losing to Reagan in 1980, Jimmy Carter -- whose unpopularity then rivals Bush today -- pushed through Congress two of the biggest environmental measures in American history. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act created a trust fund for toxic cleanups.

Carter also signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to protect almost 100 million acres of land and rivers in Alaska.

Carter also negotiated a deal that led to the release of American hostages held in Iran.

Though the Iranians refused to release the hostages while Carter was in office -- literally keeping them on the airport tarmac on the day of Reagan's inauguration -- it was the Carter administration that established the framework that ended the crisis without military force.

President Ronald Reagan advanced negotiations with the Soviet Union in 1988 before he left the White House. One of Reagan's biggest breakthroughs as president was the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

But the arms treaty did not guarantee a peaceful future. Conservatives, including Senate Republicans like Indiana's Dan Quayle, who was also the vice president-elect, opposed the INF and distrusted Gorbachev. Quale and others said they felt the agreement was a trick by hard-liners in the Kremlin.

Indeed, many members of George H.W. Bush's team were skeptical about changes in the Soviet Union and extremely hesitant to pursue further arms deals.

Reagan hosted a meeting in New York with Gorbachev and President-elect George H.W. Bush on December 7, 1988 at Governors Island. Before the lunch meeting, Gorbachev delivered a dramatic speech at the U.N. about a new international order, connected by the global economy, in which military force was not the prime tool of foreign policy. He endorsed the idea that nations should be free to determine their own future and promised dramatic reductions in Soviet weapons.

Though the lunch at Governors Island did not include substantive negotiations, it was important because Reagan was able to personally smooth relations between the two men, and Gorbachev got his first opportunity to persuade President-elect Bush that changes in the Soviet Union were real.

After lunch, Gorbachev toasted his hosts, turning to Bush and saying, "this is our first agreement." Although Bush remained skeptical, this first step launched a relationship that culminated in another historic arms reduction deal in 1991.

President Clinton tried to use his time as a lame duck as well. In early January, before leaving office, Clinton tried one last time to broker a Middle East peace agreement. Though all the sides got very close to a deal, negotiations eventually collapsed, leaving Clinton greatly frustrated. But he tried, right until the final day, to reach a breakthrough.

So far we have not seen strong evidence that President Bush is thinking of moving aggressively on any issue.

The most important area where he could help is as deal-maker on a bipartisan compromise for an economic stimulus bill, including dealing with the failing automobile industry.

President Bush started his term on the promise of bringing new civility to Washington and boasting of his ability to reach across the aisle in Texas. Early in his presidency, he displayed some flashes of this new tone with No Child Left Behind and with his initial response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. But that bipartisan approach quickly faded into Karl Rove's strategy of playing to the base of the party.

Now, with just less than two months left in his presidency, Bush should follow the tradition of lame-duck presidents who tried to make a difference, rather than simply playing out the clock.

The economy is in crisis and there is strong demand for Washington to do something. President Bush's legacy could benefit from some effective action. The president should break bread with Democrats and get this recovery started.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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