By Richard S. Dunham
At first blush, it seems like no big deal that President George W. Bush's job-approval ratings recently dropped below 80% for the first time since September 11 (they peaked in November at 88%). After all, in a nation evenly divided on partisan and ideological matters, no politician can keep everybody happy forever. His 77% favorable rating in the Feb. 26-27 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll is still quite strong. Yet Bush loyalists and GOP strategists have cause for concern. The reason: Much of the damage has been self-inflicted.
What most worries some GOP operatives: Despite Bush's high popularity, the White House has wasted stacks of political capital that the President accumulated in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Plenty of measures could be quickly signed into law. Among them are election reform, a Patients' Bill of Rights, and an economic stimulus bill that would give unemployed workers extended government benefits and would give corporations accelerated depreciation of some equipment.
Instead, the Administration is embroiled in counterproductive political battles. The most damaging is Vice-President Cheney's stubborn refusal to disclose any further information on his meetings with energy-industry representatives, including Enron officials, during formulation of the White House energy policy in 2001.
What a clunker this fight is. It's a big-time political liability and a loser in court, too. Numerous Republican consultants have offered Cheney unsolicited advice: Cop a deal, and get it over with. One senior GOP Senate staffer tells me the Administration's position is "politically unsustainable for the long term" and has caused "much gnashing of teeth" among Hill Republicans. Even though the White House views this as a matter of principle, it's a questionable way to spend political capital.
Then there was the flub by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who suggested that former President Clinton's failed Middle East peace efforts had contributed to further bloodshed in the region. "In an attempt to shoot the moon and get nothing, more violence resulted," the President's Press Secretary said at an off-camera briefing on Feb. 27.
After wails of protest from Democrats and inside the Administration, the White House issued a rare retraction and said the comment was "not the position of the Administration.... No United States President, including President Clinton, is to blame for violence in the Middle East." A quick about-face. But the damage was done.
"ACCESS OF EVIL."
The effort by White House hardliners to tone down Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill's push for boardroom accountability is another example (see BW Online, 3/1/02, "O'Neill Has the White House Running Scared"). Some Administration officials fear that holding corporate execs liable for financial misrepresentations would be a boon for trial lawyers -- a group despised by many Bush campaign donors. Trouble is, any attempt to water down antifraud safeguards would play into the opposition's hands. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe loves to pound the White House for being beholden to a corporate "access of evil."
Don't get me wrong. The President deserves high marks for his second-year agenda. He's not using the war against terrorism as an excuse to retreat on domestic issues. His new proposals on welfare-to-work mandates, a second round of school reform, and air-pollution abatement provide grist for substantive policy debate.
Too often, however, the White House seems caught in old-school Washington partisanship. On energy policy, the White House is preparing for a showdown over expanded drilling under the Alaskan tundra, a controversial position that's preventing Bush from winning quick passage of legislation that gives the Administration nearly everything else it wants. Meanwhile, House Republican firebrands and Senate Democratic partisans have forced a stalemate on the so-called stimulus package with their disagreement over a long list of corporate tax benefits demanded by the GOP. The White House seems unwilling to use its political capital to broker the deal necessary to claim a major economic victory.
With Bush's approval numbers beginning to slip, it's imperative for him to take action on the economy. Among voters who believe the U.S. is in a recession, only 45% approve of the way Bush handles the economy, according to a Feb. 25 American Research Group poll. A bare majority of these voters (52%) likes his overall job performance.
President Bush needs to focus like a laser on getting things done, not positioning his party for the 2002 midterm elections. Political capital is perishable. The President would be wise to trade on his popularity to advance bold policy goals, such as reforming Social Security and Medicare, breaking down barriers to international trade, and creating a win-win regulatory atmosphere that both protects the environment and cuts regulatory red tape.
Those big ideas won't be easy to achieve. But they're doable for a popular President, and they'll have long-term benefits. Better that than the President continuing to whittle away his own popularity with precious little to show for it.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht