For Bush in Last Year, It's the Principle

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President Bush says the slow growth of the economy is 'not good enough for America,' but new rebate checks will inject some life and spending soon. Video by AP

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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 3, 2008

After U.S. gasoline prices surged to a record high this week, President Bush strode into the Rose Garden to unveil his plans for coping with skyrocketing energy costs: drill for oil in Alaska, add U.S. refineries and build more nuclear plants.

Even the White House conceded that the ideas did not have a chance. Democrats howled, Republicans shrugged and Washington moved on.

Ignoring the conventions of a lame-duck presidency, Bush is forging ahead with proposals that appear to have little chance of passage during his last nine months, relying on sharp rhetoric and strong-arm tactics in an attempt to influence the Democratic Congress. His plan for housing reform has languished since August, his push for a free trade pact with Colombia has been crushed, his climate-warming initiative has been largely ignored and he has yet to persuade the House to pass terrorist-surveillance legislation he deems vital to protecting the country.

Presidential aides characterize Bush as intent on pursuing matters of principle, regardless of the polls. Democrats accuse him of needless stubbornness at the expense of improving a battered economy and addressing other problems.

"I believe they're letting the American people down," Bush said of Congress during his Tuesday news conference in the Rose Garden. He added a moment later: "I'm perplexed, I guess is the best way to describe it, about why there's no action -- inactivity on big issues."

Any president faces a challenge during the last year in office, in part because so much attention shifts to the succession contest. For example, the recent debate over waiving the federal gas tax has focused on what the would-be presidents would do, rather than on the policies of the man currently in the White House.

Bush faces particularly daunting obstacles. He is waging an unpopular war, battling an opposition Congress and, for the first time in more than half a century, does not have a vice president at his side yearning to succeed him. His popularity has also reached new lows. A CNN-Opinion Research Corp. survey released Thursday showed that 71 percent of the public disapproves of how Bush is handling his job -- the highest figure since the question was first asked in the 1930s.

Bush has responded by stepping up his attacks on Congress in recent weeks. He has called lawmakers irresponsible, derided a bipartisan farm bill as "bloated," and repeatedly criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for blocking the Colombia pact. Bush is also looking abroad in hopes of making progress on peace in the Middle East, North Korea and other international issues, though his chances of success there aren't much better.

Patrick J. Griffin, a White House legislative affairs chief during the Clinton administration, said Bush appears unconcerned with major legislation in his final year and is focused instead on long-range conservative goals.

"They're at a moment where their concern about a legacy is much bigger than how much legislation they pass," Griffin said. "He's defining himself as a man of principle and obviously not caring about the polls, not caring about what's politically expedient. Based on those criteria, then he's doing it just right."

Bush and his aides say his difficulties have been overstated. Administration officials point to the $168 billion stimulus package he proposed this year, which was approved with bipartisan support and is now showering taxpayers with rebate checks.

Administration officials express confidence about the prospects for several national security measures, such as supplemental war budget proposals being debated in Congress. Several White House aides also said they believe that new surveillance legislation will be pushed through by summer, when wiretap orders issued under a previous law begin to expire.


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