Bush's Political Capital Spent, Voices in Both Parties Suggest
Poll Numbers Sag as Setbacks Mount at Home and Abroad

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.

"He's not a lame duck yet, but there are rumblings," said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian. Dallek said Bush's recent travails remind him of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who overreached in his second term by trying to pack the Supreme Court, a move that backfired. "Second terms are treacherous, and presidents enter into a minefield where they really must shepherd their credibility and political capital," he said.

Bush started off his second term with a string of important victories, pushing through measures to make it harder to file class-action lawsuits against big corporations and to wipe out debts by filing for personal bankruptcy. Congress passed its first budget resolution in years, largely along the lines of Bush's proposals, and gave him nearly everything he asked for in an $82 billion supplemental appropriations bill to pay for war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The White House rejects talk of drift by pointing to such victories. Asked at a briefing last week about the possible "onset of lame-duck status around here," White House press secretary Scott McClellan ticked off a list of accomplishments.

"This Congress has been in place for just over four months now, and we have made significant progress," he said. Addressing the troubled Social Security plan, he added: "Sometimes the legislative process isn't going to move as fast as we would all like, particularly on an issue that was this difficult."

Another senior White House official, who asked to remain anonymous to offer a franker assessment, acknowledged the perception problem. "I will admit it's a challenge to shine the light on the progress," the official said. "The victories have been overshadowed by partisan drama."

Nowhere was there more drama than in the Senate last week, when 14 senators from both parties forged a deal without White House approval that would allow some, but not all, of Bush's stalled judicial nominees to receive floor votes. The deal on judges was followed quickly by a vote to shut down a filibuster on Bolton's nomination, a vote that Bush and the GOP lost.

The House also rejected Bush by passing a measure easing his restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, with 50 Republicans joining most Democrats despite the threat of a presidential veto. The Senate has also advanced a more expensive highway bill than Bush has deemed acceptable, while his efforts to win passage for a Central American trade pact and an immigration guest worker program are stalled.

Overseas, violence in Iraq has killed about 700 civilians and at least 63 U.S. troops this month, frustrating efforts to stabilize the situation after January's successful parliamentary elections. The governments of two U.S. allies resorted to crackdowns on opponents. In Uzbekistan, government forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing hundreds, while in Egypt, pro-government gangs beat up protesters after a visit by Laura Bush.

In some ways, allies said, Bush has run into resistance because he swings for the fences, taking on especially hard issues. By making Social Security the centerpiece of his domestic blueprint, he guaranteed a tough legislative campaign. But it has begun to take its toll on the rest of his agenda as well. The White House had hoped to be far enough along with Social Security by summer to launch his second top priority, overhaul of the tax code. That is likely to be delayed until next year.

Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, is said by colleagues to remain optimistic that Congress will deliver Social Security legislation that includes personal accounts. But other aides privately are beginning to talk about whether they could accept a deal that does not include the accounts.

John D. Podesta, a top Clinton aide who runs the Center for American Progress, a research institute that promotes ideas that counter conservative policies, said Bush made the mistake of trying to turn a successful election strategy of catering to his base into a governing philosophy that excludes Democrats.

"What surprises me is that they seem to be unable to adjust particularly to the circumstances," Podesta said. "They promoted their Social Security case. It bombed. I would have thought they would have tried to change the subject or tried a different strategy. 'You're with us or against us' works well when you're fighting al Qaeda, but it doesn't with Social Security, and they don't seem to have another play in the book."

Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was White House chief of staff during Reagan's second term, said after the congressional recess Bush needs "to seize the momentum" on energy legislation, the Central American free trade pact, spending bills and a Social Security solvency plan.

"After all, the president is always in the driver's seat, as all presidents are, and he cannot be distracted by speed bumps and detours along the way," Duberstein said. "The president needs to define victories in ways that he can achieve them."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company