Better Concentrate Real Hard, Mr. President

Dubya has lost the Senate, his poll numbers are dropping, and there's a growing impression that he's, well, incompetent. Time for action

By Richard S. Dunham

Some forty years ago, Senate Republican Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen famously said, "A billion [dollars] here and a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money." Well, Dirksen's comment could well be adapted to fit President Bush's newfound political predicament: "A gaffe here and a goof there, and pretty soon you're talking real trouble."

Even with the passage of a 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut, the President faces the first political crisis of his young Administration. He has lost control of the Senate -- due, in large part, to mishandling the senatorial ego of Vermont's Jim Jeffords by ham-handed White House staffers. Bush is watching his popularity ratings head south amid public unhappiness with his recently unveiled energy policy. He's facing diplomatic time bombs in the Middle East and the Balkans. And he'll almost certainly get a frosty reception from European leaders when he visits the Continent in mid-June. They are profoundly skeptical of American go-it-alone plans on global warming and a missile-defense shield.

A bare majority of Americans are still willing to give their leader favorable marks (52%, according to a May 23-24 CNN/Time Poll). But, without doubt, the Bush Presidency has reached a crossroad. And if the boss takes the wrong turn, he could end up a one-term President. Here are some of the profound challenges ahead:

Energy crisis. The President has been saying for months that the nation faces an energy crisis. Now, it turns out, the President also faces his own energy crisis. In short, the American public has reacted swiftly and negatively to the President's drill-a-lot-and-conserve-a-little masterplan. A May 18-20 Gallup Poll found that 41% of Americans approved of Bush's approach to energy, while 51% turned thumbs down.

If the President is not careful, energy could do to his Presidency what national health care did to President Clinton's. Like the unpopular Clinton-care proposal, the Bush energy plan was put together in secret and contains certain elements that are strongly opposed by a vast majority of citizens. (Case in point: Arctic drilling.) All that we're missing is an ad campaign featuring an enviro version of Harry and Louise. Team Bush needs to change the political dynamic here. In a hurry.

Seeing red over green(s). There's a growing perception in the land that the President is anti-environmental and too close to oil companies. The White House political team has figured that out, hence several green-oriented events in recent days. Bush even donned a green jacket for a recent hike among the redwoods. Get it?

Pro-environment, pro-choice economic conservatives are one group of swing voters that Bush can't afford to alienate. They populate suburbs from Seattle to Tampa Bay. The President has to be careful, or he could alienate a constituency that could determine his re-election.

Bush to California: Drop Dead. It's not that George Bush must win California in the 2004 election to win a second term. (Heck, he lost the Golden State in 2000. And he'll probably lose it again. Just 22% of Californians think he's done a good job handling the energy crisis.) What Bush can't afford is to allow the state's power mess to set off a national recession. That's something that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan worries out loud about.

Hence, it's exceptionally important for the White House to figure out a way to help California avoid an economic meltdown in coming months. It's a tough challenge. Bush is dead-set against electricity price caps, the quick fix favored by Californians. The President's leadership abilities will be tested here. If the West Coast economic malaise spreads to the rest of the country, Democrats could well take back the Congress in 2002 and the White House in 2004.

Moderates on the edge. Conservatives are reacting to the Jeffords defection by warning Bush not to give an inch to appease other centrist Republicans. Not only are GOP moderates wimps, they are unreliable, the conservatives argue. And they represent just a tiny fraction of the boldly conservative Republican Party.

That may be. Trouble is, centrist Republicans also are key swing voters at the polls. In 1996, 20% of them voted for Bill Clinton over Bob Dole. The result: A Clinton landslide. The Republicans can't afford to drive away the political center any more than Democrats can afford to alienate conservatives in their own party. Conservatives have a choice: Ideological purity or a congressional majority. Which road will Bush take?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That's what every President needs. Thus far, Bush has earned the respect of a majority of Americans, who seem to like him personally -- even if they disagree with some of his policies. But he has to be careful to prevent an accumulation of gaffes from eroding his standing with the voters. Jimmy Carter suffered such a decline in the public eye, caused not by a single incident but an accumulation of things -- from the killer rabbit that allegedly attacked his rowboat, to funny vests, and verbal flubs. As 1988 Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis once declared: Competence counts.

Bush has a chance to show his competence on a European trip that begins June 11. For the first time in his Presidency, he'll meet with European leaders, eye to eye, far from the regal confines of the Oval Office. The tour could lead Bush down the Reaganesque road of global leadership, or down a long and winding road to political oblivion.

Bush is at a fork in the road. He'd do well to take the advice of baseball philosopher king Yogi Berra, "When you get to a fork in the road, take it." He just better make sure it's the right one.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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