Analysis

Bush's Political Capital Spent, Voices in Both Parties Suggest

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By Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Two days after winning reelection last fall, President Bush declared that he had earned plenty of "political capital, and now I intend to spend it." Six months later, according to Republicans and Democrats alike, his bank account has been significantly drained.

In the past week alone, the Republican-led House defied his veto threat and passed legislation promoting stem cell research; Senate Democrats blocked confirmation, at least temporarily, of his choice for U.N. ambassador; and a rump group of GOP senators abandoned the president in his battle to win floor votes for all of his judicial nominees.

With his approval ratings in public opinion polls at the lowest level of his presidency, Bush has been stymied so far in his campaign to restructure Social Security. On the international front, violence has surged again in Iraq in recent weeks, dispelling much of the optimism generated by the purple-stained-finger elections back in January, while allies such as Egypt and Uzbekistan have complicated his campaign to spread democracy.

The series of setbacks on the domestic front could signal that the president has weakened leverage over his party, a situation that could embolden the opposition, according to analysts and politicians from both sides. Bush faces the potential of a summer of discontent when his capacity to muscle political Washington into following his lead seems to have diminished and few easy victories appear on the horizon.

"He has really burned up whatever mandate he had from that last election," said Leon E. Panetta, who served as White House chief of staff during President Bill Clinton's second term. "You can't slam-dunk issues in Washington. You can't just say, 'This is what I want done' and by mandate get it done. It's a lesson everybody has to learn, and sometimes you learn it the hard way."

Through more than four years in the White House, the signature of Bush's leadership has been that he does not panic in the face of bad poll numbers. Yet many Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the lobbyist corridor of K Street worry about a season of drift and complain that the White House has not listened to their concerns. In recent meetings, House Republicans have discussed putting more pressure on the White House to move beyond Social Security and talk up different issues, such as health care and tax reform, according to Republican officials who asked not to be named to avoid angering Bush's team.

"There is a growing sense of frustration with the president and the White House, quite frankly," said an influential Republican member of Congress. "The term I hear most often is 'tin ear,' " especially when it comes to pushing Social Security so aggressively at a time when the public is worried more about jobs and gasoline prices. "We could not have a worse message at a worse time."

Many experienced Washington hands believe that Bush has the opportunity to reestablish his clout if he focuses his efforts. "Every president goes through patches like this," Newt Gingrich, the Republican former House speaker, said in an interview. "[President Ronald] Reagan had a difficult patch in August '81, but he came back and was strongly successful. Clinton, if you'll remember, in June or July of '95 looked like he couldn't get anything done and then won reelection. These things come and go."

To get back on track, Gingrich said, Bush should pare down his Social Security plan to its central element, personal investment accounts funded by payroll taxes. "I don't think he can get complex reform through," Gingrich said. "It's too hard with the AARP opposing you and all of the Democrats lined up against it."

Bush has had a hard time persuading Congress to go along with his agenda, in part because surveys show that much of the public has soured on him and his priorities. In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, taken last month, 47 percent of Americans approved of Bush's performance, tying the lowest marks he ever received in that survey, back in mid-2004, when Democrats were airing tens of millions of dollars' worth of campaign attack ads.

Similarly, just 31 percent approved of his handling of Social Security, an all-time low in the Post-ABC poll, while only 40 percent gave him good marks for his stewardship of the economy and 42 percent for his management of Iraq, both ratings close to the lowest ever recorded in those areas. Other surveys have recorded similar findings, with Bush's approval rating as low as 43 percent.

Such weakness has unleashed the first mutterings of those dreaded second-term words, "lame duck," however premature it might be with 3 1/2 years left in his tenure. "The Democrats are doing everything they can to make this president a lame duck," Republican consultant Ed Rollins complained on Fox News on Friday. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, wrote recently about "the impression -- and the reality -- of disarray" in urging Bush to wage a strong fight for the nomination of John R. Bolton as U.N. ambassador.


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