Analysis

President May Be Running Out of Time to Rebound

President Bush has been unable so far to reverse approval ratings approaching historical lows.
President Bush has been unable so far to reverse approval ratings approaching historical lows. (By Kevin Lamarque -- Reuters)

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By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Several of President Bush's key legislative priorities stalled last week while his credibility took a hit with the disclosure that he authorized the release of sensitive intelligence in an effort to discredit a vocal critic of the invasion of Iraq. Some Republican strategists said they are concerned about whether he can reverse a political nosedive that has defined much of his second term.

With his approval ratings stuck at all-time lows, Bush finds himself increasingly powerless to influence events in Congress, where rebellious Republicans and opportunistic Democrats have combined to stall some of his most important initiatives. Heading into a two-week recess, senators could not agree on a plan to revamp immigration policy, while negotiations over the president's budget and efforts to extend tax cuts collapsed in the House late last week.

Meanwhile, the Iraq war continues to be the biggest political issue confronting Bush, as that country remains wracked by sectarian violence with U.S. troops stuck in the middle. The carnage continued even as Bush stepped up the pressure for leaders there to break a deadlock over forming a unity government that many analysts see as a necessary step toward ending the bloodshed.

The confluence of events, coupled with the continued fallout from previous missteps, including the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and the debacle over the deal to transfer control of terminal operations at six U.S. ports to an Arab firm, has some Republican strategists worried that Bush may be running out of time to reestablish his leadership.

"In politics, bad gets worse, and we've had about a six-month run of bad getting worse," said Ed Rogers, a Republican with close ties to the White House. "How do you stop it? You get sure-footed and you quit having bad luck. This president can now measure in a relatively few number of months his window for effective governance."

Bush has worked hard in recent months to reverse his political fortunes, with little apparent success. He has opened himself up to questioning in his public appearances, which formerly were limited mostly to carefully choreographed events before friendly audiences.

He has taken pains to lay out in detail his administration's strategy in Iraq. And recently, the White House announced formation of an Iraq Study Group, under the congressionally funded U.S. Institute for Peace. The bipartisan independent effort is aimed at finding a way forward in Iraq. Bush also has extended himself to the media, inviting groups of reporters for off-the-record discussions in the White House residence in hopes of offering insight on his thinking and forging a better relationship.

Bush also replaced departing chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. with former budget director Joshua B. Bolten, the first step in what some officials say will be a shake-up of the White House staff.

Those efforts have not paid dividends in the polls. An Associated Press-Ipsos survey released late last week found that 36 percent of the public approves of the president's job performance -- a measure that Bush often dismisses as inconsequential but analysts say weakens his power to influence Congress.

"There is a relationship between the president's approval ratings and loyalty on Capitol Hill," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. "For the president to promote his agenda, he has to use Congress to move forward and change the subject. But it is difficult to get out of the hole that you dug when in fact your allies are also running for the hills."

The AP-Ipsos survey also found that 30 percent of the public approves of the job performance of the Republican-led Congress, and they said Democrats should control Congress, 49 percent to 33 percent. The GOP's ability to reverse that tide has been compromised by the change of leadership in its caucus in Congress. And with the 2006 elections approaching, Republican members of Congress are less likely to follow the party line as they scramble for political survival.

Democrats, meanwhile, are standing aside while their rivals suffer through their political problems. "The Republican Party is on message. It just happens to be the Democratic Party's message," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Bush started his presidency as a compassionate conservative. I would have settled for a competent conservative. Now, he is becoming a symbol for a corrupt conservative."

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said that Bush and congressional Republicans still can reassert themselves, so long as they are able to reignite momentum on the initiatives stalled in Congress. "In politics, it really only matters where you are in November of '06 and November '08," he said. "If the election were today, I wouldn't be terribly happy. But the election is in November."

Although Bush's approval ratings hover near an all-time low, his predicament is hardly unique: Every president since Lyndon B. Johnson has suffered through similar periods of unpopularity.

"History suggests that all presidents go through times like this," said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant. "For presidents, it is not a matter of if you will run into a period like this. It is how you react to them."

Ayres said that Bush has reason for optimism, including the Medicare prescription drug program, which is popular among senior citizens who are able to navigate the complicated enrollment process and sign up, and a relatively strong economy that created 200,000 jobs over the past month.

"Americans do not perceive the economy to be as strong as it is," Ayres said. "But closing that perception gap is one obvious way the president can paint a brighter future."

Still, even the good news is being overshadowed by the bad for the president. On Friday, Bush made a statement to reporters touting the sunny economic numbers. But later, the press corps was focused on the disclosure in court papers that a former top White House aide testified that Bush authorized his disclosure of key parts of a formerly classified document to reporters in what a prosecutor described as an effort to discredit a CIA consultant whose assertions in a newspaper column undermined the administration's rationale for invading Iraq. The disclosure was particularly stunning, because Bush has long condemned leaks of sensitive government information.

"That is very problematic," Rogers said. "If, in the public mind, this becomes a question of the president's integrity or veracity, it becomes even more problematic."


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