The Tricky Business of Being Mr. Popularity

Pleasing the Right could alienate Bush's newfound fans

Like father, like son. A decade ago, in the afterglow of his gulf war triumph, President George Bush's approval rating stood at 91% in the polls. Now, President George W. Bush, flush from success in Afghanistan, boasts the longest run of job-approval ratings above 80% in modern history. Like his dad, the younger Bush has accumulated vast amounts of goodwill. "There's not a vault large enough to hold his political capital," marvels Democratic consultant Dane Strother.

But what to do with it? Presidential advisers say Bush Jr. is haunted by his father's precipitous decline in public esteem following Kuwait's liberation. The senior Bush squandered his capital by flip-flopping on his promise not to raise taxes. He then lost the election when voters blamed him for not doing enough to right a sour economy. "The biggest lesson from Dad is: Use your capital wisely and don't fritter it away," says University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan.

DORMANT. For the current President, that means some tough political calculations. While he has won praise across the political spectrum for his military and diplomatic achievements, Bush hasn't articulated a strategy for fighting recession or devised a domestic agenda beyond his 2000 campaign promises. For the time being, the White House plans to parcel out small amounts of political capital to complete a domestic agenda that has been largely dormant since September 11. Returning from Thanksgiving weekend, Bush told his staff he wanted to complete several unfinished items on his legislative to-do list, from oil drilling to trade liberalization to a more moderate version of his faith-based initiative.

Lightning-rod issues, such as Social Security reform and overhauling the tax system, will stay on the back burner as the White House tries to consolidate Bush's newfound support among swing voters. He's "governing in a way that won't antagonize the 80% support he has," says Stephen Moore, president of the supply-side Club for Growth. "He fears that if he starts being partisan, his support will go back down to 51%."

Problem is, political popularity is a highly perishable commodity. If he continues his bipartisan outreach of the past two months, Bush risks alienating conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill who consider any compromise with Democrats a sign of weakness. And if he embraces his right wing, he'll lose the backing of new centrist supporters. What's more, an unexpectedly nasty recession or other terrorist strikes in the U.S. could change the political landscape once again.

White House political advisers are walking a fine line. For the first eight months of Bush's Presidency, they pursued a rightward tilt, trying to mollify the Republican Right. But they now see an opportunity to attract more Independents and Democrats. Bush's job approval among Democrats of all stripes has already soared.

To keep newfound fans in the fold without alienating the hard core, the White House is hatching a series of careful compromises. Bush's original faith-based initiative, for instance, angered many Democrats because they saw it as a clear case of mixing church and state. Now, though he will no doubt lose some support on the far right, the President is close to a compromise with Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) on a trimmed down version. "Bush is driving the train right now," says Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a leading proponent of the bill.

The President will take a harder line on another top priority: trade liberalization. He is planning to confront leaders of the Democratic Party, and some America Firsters in the GOP, by insisting on a final vote on the long-delayed legislation to restore special Presidential trade-negotiating authority. With a Dec. 6 showdown vote looming in the House, the President has been trying to persuade key undecided Democrats and Republicans to stand with him. But Bush's stout support for free trade is likely to alienate some union members who strongly back his military action.

Another unfinished Bush priority: energy legislation. The Administration and its oil industry allies say the war on terrorism has made the public far more willing to expand production at home. "There's an increased recognition on the part of the American public that we need to increase domestic supply," says Red Cavaney, president of the American Petroleum Institute. He may have a point: According to a Nov. 9-12 Ipsos-Reid survey, 67% of Americans favor new energy exploration, even in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Still, Bush's big push for more drilling could lower his stratospheric support among pro-environment independents and suburbanites. That could be why Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is delaying consideration of the energy bill until 2002.

BRUSHFIRES. The White House also will have to expend capital to put out some political brushfires. On Capitol Hill, Democrats have tied up spending and tax-cut bills while holding out for a second budget summit--something the White House is loath to do. Democratic strategists think they can dent the President's armor by portraying Republicans as tools of Corporate America for pushing a second tax cut weighted toward business in the guise of "economic stimulus." Remembering the fate of the first Bush, the White House wants to be seen as doing something to jumpstart the economy and assist unemployed workers. Still, a likely compromise may end up disappointing Bush's corporate allies.

Elsewhere, though, Bush's domestic agenda remains largely unformed. Cashing in on his popularity may be vital to maintaining it. One possible role model: Franklin D. Roosevelt. "The more he was able to accomplish legislatively, the easier it was to get even more of the New Deal enacted," says Moore. "The more successful he became legislatively, the more popular he became."

That's a better model than Bush Sr. The President will never have as much leverage as he has now. But it's his political skills inside the Beltway--not the exploits of the U.S. military--that will decide whether that capital is well spent.

By Richard S. Dunham, with Lorraine Woellert and Laura Cohn, in Washington

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