Paying a Price for Overreaching
In January, when interviewing at the White House on the prospects for President Bush's second term, I found that the reelected chief executive had instilled a belief among his close associates that the bigger and bolder the goals they set for themselves, the more they would accomplish.
Whether it was political strategist Karl Rove or budget boss Josh Bolten, the message was the same: The way to avoid the "second-term curse" that had brought disappointment and frustration to almost every reelected president in modern times would be to have a clear and ambitious agenda.
Bush sounded the theme himself in his first post-election news conference, claiming a mandate for broad change. "In the election of 2004," he said, "large issues were set before our country. They were discussed every day on the campaign. With the campaign over, Americans are expecting a bipartisan effort -- and results."
So Bush set forth an amazingly ambitious set of goals, ranging from the overhaul of American high schools to the achievement of democracy in the Middle East -- with reform of Social Security, the judiciary and the whole legal liability system, as well as a new energy policy, thrown in for good measure.
Now Bush has run into trouble on major parts of that agenda, and his overall leadership position appears to be much weaker than anyone would have guessed on his second Inauguration Day.
This week's Washington Post-ABC News poll put his overall job approval score at 47 percent -- matching the lowest score in his 51 months in office. Whereas in January as many people strongly approved of his performance as strongly opposed it, now the highly negative ratings outnumber the very positive 3 to 2.
Having armed himself with an ambitious set of goals in order to energize his government, Bush has become the victim of overreach -- the one problem he and his advisers did not anticipate.
They thought that things had gone downhill for Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton because those presidents had largely used up their "big ideas" in their first terms and were left adrift without much sense of purpose, vulnerable to their enemies, in their final four years.
So Bush set forth what any president would have to consider a breathtakingly bold agenda. As Charles O. Jones of the University of Wisconsin remarked to me in January, it was particularly striking to see "a second-term president with the smallest electoral college majority since Wilson in 1916 undertake the most ambitious agenda since Roosevelt in 1936."
Bush can count some early successes. He has signed legislation restricting class-action lawsuits -- the first and easiest step in his multi-part assault on trial lawyers -- and he has approved a bill tightening rules on personal bankruptcies, a boon to part of his business constituency.
But in retrospect, Bush clearly overestimated his political capital. The Post-ABC News poll at inauguration time gave him only a 52-to-46 percent positive job approval rating, much lower than Reagan or Clinton enjoyed at the start of their ill-fated second terms.
His far more important goal of changing Social Security, the backbone of the New Deal, into a hybrid system with personal savings accounts tied to the stock and bond markets has sunk like a rock. The latest Post poll shows a 2-to-1 disapproval score for Bush's handling of the Social Security issue, by far the worst score of his presidency. For the first time in Post polls, more opposed private accounts than supported giving people that option.
The fact that Bush is losing -- and losing badly -- on the issue to which he has devoted more time and effort than any other has had a negative effect on his overall standing and his political influence.
Ratings on Iraq and the economy also have slumped; only the war on terrorism remains a plus for the president.
Bush also appears to have overreached in his dealings with the judiciary. His stated goal of bringing more "strict constructionist" judges onto the bench has been perceived as a narrow political objective by increasing numbers of Americans. Other polls have shown Bush's participation in the effort to overturn the state court decisions allowing Terri Schiavo to die was criticized by large majorities.
And current efforts by Senate Republicans, with the explicit backing of the White House, to eliminate Democratic filibusters against some Bush judicial nominees were surprisingly rejected in the latest Post poll. By a margin of 66 percent to 26 percent, the voters opposed changing Senate rules to make it easier for the Republicans to confirm Bush's judicial nominees.
The public clearly seems to be telling Bush to back off his most ambitious pla ns.