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David Ignatius

Behind Bush's Slump

By David Ignatius
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page A25

It was less than three months ago that President Bush launched his second term with a soaring inaugural address and bold promises about how he would spend his new political capital. Today much of that momentum seems to have been lost, and analysts are puzzling over why.

Polls show striking erosion in support for the president and in confidence about the nation's course. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey released Wednesday found that only 34 percent of those polled felt the country was headed in the right direction, a decline of eight percentage points since the previous survey in February. The president's job approval rating in the NBC/Journal poll had also fallen, to 48 percent from 50 percent in February.

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Poll numbers bounce around from week to week, but the trend for Bush has clearly been down. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released two weeks ago pegged his approval rating at 45 percent, which the pollsters said was the lowest of his presidency; that rating improved slightly, to 48 percent, in a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released this week. But that poll found just 41 percent approved of Bush's handling of the economy, and a mere 35 percent backed his handling of Social Security.

"President Bush seems to have slipped into a second-term slump," wrote USA Today's Susan Page. And looking at the numbers, it's hard to argue with that conclusion. Who would have thought three months ago that Iraq news would be a relief from the president's domestic troubles?

So what has happened to the president and his political capital since Inauguration Day? Many analysts cite two obvious factors: the president's intervention in the Terri Schiavo case and his barnstorming for private Social Security accounts. Both stands seemed to have frightened voters, including many who had voted for Bush. An astonishing 82 percent of Americans believed that Congress and the president shouldn't have gotten involved in the Schiavo tragedy, according to a CBS poll released in late March. I can't remember the last time 82 percent of the nation agreed about anything.

The public is also unhappy about Bush's handling of Social Security -- an issue on which he has raised public anxiety without offering a coherent solution. The president's road show for private accounts has actually increased public uneasiness about his handling of Social Security, with 57 percent disapproval today compared with 48 percent in February, according to USA Today/CNN/Gallup polling.

The president's political advisers argue that he's taking a hit because he's willing to provide leadership on unpopular and divisive issues. I would argue that the opposite is more nearly true. The public badly wants leadership; it wants a president who will govern wisely and confidently in ways that unite the country. The public is uneasy with a president who seems to be playing for political advantage on Social Security with his promises about private accounts, rather than offering a plan for making the system solvent.

A passive Bush is still waiting for Congress to take the lead on the benefit cuts or tax increases that will be necessary. "If you've got a good idea, we expect you to be at the table. . . . We want to listen to good ideas," the president said last week during a stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. That hardly sounds like bold leadership.

Real leadership takes courage. The night Bush's father was inaugurated in 1989, he wrote in his diary that he planned to call the Democratic speaker of the House the next day and begin the painful work of cutting the budget deficit. By working responsibly with Congress, the elder Bush helped create the conditions for the economic boom of the 1990s. But he lost the 1992 election. That specter is now gone for the younger Bush; he won the prize that eluded his father. But what does he want to do with it?

I asked one of Bush's political advisers recently why the president hadn't worked more closely with congressional leaders to deal with America's serious financial problems. He answered that this president has no interest in dickering with committee chairmen over the details of legislation. Bush is a man of large ambition who wants big, bold victories -- who wants to hit home runs rather than singles and doubles.

To me that's the heart of Bush's problem. He's swinging for the fences, on everything from Iraq to Social Security. But leadership isn't just about soaring rhetoric; it's about responsible stewardship. And in the end, it's about solving problems. Perhaps that's the real reason the president has lost momentum since that remarkable Inauguration Day speech. The country elected him to be a leader, not a barnstormer.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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