Tough presidential debut destabilizes Bush


Stinging setbacks in Congress, a tough first overseas trip and doubts about his conservative agenda have knocked President George W. Bush off balance. Even some Republicans are wondering whether his political course needs adjusting.

They’re particularly concerned about four public opinion polls that show Bush’s job approval rating slipping 6 to 8 percentage points since the spring. The dip, comfortably outside the margin of error, is due largely to voters who say they don’t believe he cares about their concerns.

Many Americans are troubled by Bush’s environmental and energy policies, polls show, and even his biggest legislative achievement — a US$1.35 trillion tax cut — is shadowed by some doubt. Two-thirds of those polled in a recent survey said the money would have been better spent on other programs.

Things aren’t going much better in Congress.

A Republican lawmaker bolted the party, handing control of the Senate to Democrats. The House, though still Republican, rejected Bush’s efforts to explore for oil and gas in environmentally sensitive areas and denied his request to allow Mexican trucks to operate throughout the United States.

The White House called attention to Bush’s early victories on education and taxes.

“I think you’re seeing a president who’s frankly been very successful on legislative matters,” Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday. “The tax cut passed with a very large, overwhelming margin. The education bill passed by a large margin in the House, a large margin in the Senate.”

Adding to Bush’s woes, his energy plan stalled shortly after it was introduced. Conservative Republicans criticized his embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And a federal agency ordered market-based price ceilings on electricity sales across the West — a sign, perhaps, that Bush himself had softened his opposition to price caps in a bow to political pressures.

“We’re seeing some of the normal bumps and bruises that presidents see,” said Republican pollster Witt Ayres of Georgia. “Obviously, the longer it goes on, the greater the concern.”

Ayres pointed out that President Bill Clinton had bigger problems in the polls at this point in his presidency. Clinton’s job approval rating was 39 percent in a Gallup poll in June 1993, at least 10 percentage points lower than Bush’s current level.

“It’s one of those things where a new administration comes in with a lot of energy, but after a while you kind of run out of gas,” said Republican consultant Tom Rath of New Hampshire. “They’ll get their second wind, though.”

Rath and others said some of Bush’s miscues can be chalked up to inexperience.

“In Texas, the Legislature went away after five months. They’ve got to learn that Congress is around a lot longer,” Rath said. “The political environment is not going to be ceded to anybody, because the 2002 elections are just around the corner.”

Independent analysts such as Bruce Merrill at Arizona State University said Bush’s troubles started with the tax cut debate. The package was approved, but only after Democrats shrank it and Bush’s hardball tactics laid the groundwork for Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont to leave the Republican Party.

His departure tilted the evenly divided Senate to the Democrats, with widespread ramifications for Bush.

When the Republicans held the Senate, the president froze out the liberal-leaning American Bar Association from his judicial selection process. Under Democratic control, the Senate Judiciary Committee is again welcoming ABA input.

The new Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus of Montana, has put the brakes on Bush’s trade-authority legislation.

Jeffords’ defection also dominated news coverage for days, hijacking the bully pulpit from Bush. White House advisers say the Jeffords story, followed by Bush’s first overseas trip later in the month, knocked them off message and hurt their long- and short term planning.

Newly empowered Democrats are pushing their poll tested issues to the forefront. Patients’ rights legislation, never a top Bush priority, is gaining steam under Senate Democrats.

Bush may be forced to choose between two bad options: Veto the politically popular measure or sign a bill opposed by his business and insurance industry supporters.

He’s is already showing a willingness to compromise on the issue, like he did on tax cuts.

With all the commotion, analysts say voters are still not sure what to make of Bush.

“People like the guy,” Merrill said, “but they’re not so crazy about his policies.”

Republicans say Bush will get a boost this summer, when millions of voters begin receiving the tax refunds he produced. Meanwhile, they expect him to learn from his experiences so far and fine tune his political operations.

Democrats hope he doesn’t.

“People don’t think he’s up to the job and they think he sides with the powerful,” said Democratic consultant James Carville. “I’ll take that.”