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For Bush, Advances But Not Approval
White House officials point to several modest advances they say show that Bush is now more nimble politically and still able to achieve discrete victories, such as his housing plan, House approval of his free-trade pact with Peru, confirmation of Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general and the response to the California wildfires.
Key to his success has been keeping enough GOP lawmakers on his side to block Democratic initiatives, despite Republicans' lingering bitterness with Bush for not dumping Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld until the day after last year's election.
"Post-Rumsfeld and the debacle that that was, they had some fences to mend, and I would say to a great degree they have mended them," said House Republican Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam (Fla.). "That was a setback to trust, but I think they've begun to rebuild that trust."
Most important has been Iraq. Bush calculated at the start of the year that the best hope of reviving his presidency was to restore security by fall. "So now I'm an October-November man," he told Robert Draper, author of "Dead Certain," in an interview in February. "I'm playing for October-November."
As Bush hoped, falling violence in October and November has bought him time. While it has not yielded the political accord it was supposed to, the sense that troops have made progress has made it harder to bring them home.
"A year ago, people were saying that the president and Republicans in Congress were ignoring any sign of bad news out of Iraq," White House counselor Ed Gillespie said. "You could make a compelling case today that Democratic leaders and Democratic members in Congress are ignoring any signs of good news out of Iraq. But the American people see the benefit of the surge."
For all that, violence in Iraq has simply returned to where it was roughly a year or two ago and other victories claimed by the White House betray a certain weakness as well as strength. A trade pact with Peru will hardly redefine this presidency, nor will initiatives on aviation congestion. Bush did get a new attorney general confirmed -- the handpicked choice of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who helped force the president's close friend, Alberto R. Gonzales, to resign.
And the veto fights are all about stopping legislation, not passing it. The White House has given up hope of passing major proposals, such as overhauling Social Security or immigration laws, and it may not be able to reauthorize its first-term education program, No Child Left Behind. Instead, it is redefining itself as fiscally conservative after six years of increased spending while positioning against popular programs such as the State Children's Health Insurance Program, whose expansion Bush vetoed.
"Certainly the Republicans on the Hill, enough of them, have been willing to go down the line with the president to give him some short-term victories, or at least the ability to block some things," said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.). "I would say that's a perilous course for the Republican members."
At some point, Republicans may balk, as they did already in overriding Bush's veto of a water projects bill. "The Republicans are looking at the next election, and you can't depend too strongly on your allies in Congress staying with you if the expense of that is losing your seats," said former congressman E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), now a fellow at Harvard University.
Bush's strategy contrasts with those of Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the last two-term presidents, who recovered from political troubles late in their tenures. Both found ways to work with an opposition Congress to pass important legislation. Reagan left office with a 64 percent approval rating and Clinton with a 65 percent rating.
Neither had sunk as low as Bush, whose numbers are the worst of any president in decades. Just 33 percent of Americans approved of his performance in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, a rating that matches his record low and has not changed in four months. Potentially ominous for Bush is the economy. Only 35 percent of Americans rated it as good this month, a seven-point drop since spring and the lowest in two years.
"Most Americans made up their minds a long time ago about whether they approve of George W. Bush," said Charles Black, a GOP strategist who advises the White House. "I suspect his numbers will look better four or five months from now than they do now. The contravening force is there is some economic uncertainty out there."