A Tonic for Bush's Ailing Second Term

As costly gas, fears about the economy, and an ethics scandal sink the approval ratings of the President and his party, here are some remedies

By Richard S. Dunham

One hundred and one days into his second term, President George W. Bush is near the low point of his four-and-a-half-year Presidency. His party is struggling mightily, too.

Despite an aggressive marketing campaign, public support for the President's No. 1 domestic priority, Social Security reform allowing individuals to set up private retirement savings accounts, has actually dropped since Inauguration Day. Bush's 60-day barnstorming trip across the nation to promote the plan had little effect in boosting support for his proposal.


  Meanwhile, House Republicans are roiled by ethics charges against Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and the Senate is awash in bitter partisan name-calling over a Republican push to end the Democrats' right to filibuster against judicial nominees.

Even the GOP's advantage over the Dems on family values -- which commentators rushed to credit for Bush's three-point 2004 reelection win -- has been turned on its head. An Apr. 21-24 ABC News/Washington Post Poll found that, in the wake of the filibuster brouhaha and the intervention by the White House and the Republican Congress in the Terri Schiavo case, Democrats better represent public values by 47% to 38%.

So what can Bush and the GOP do about it? Here are a few ideas from a longtime White House watcher:

It's the economy, stupid

With the notable exception of the post-September 11 period, Bush's approval ratings have closely tracked public perceptions of his handling of the economy. Indeed, according to American Research Group polls, the President's job-approval rating has fallen 7 percentage points since November -- exactly the same drop as his rating for economic stewardship.

Indeed, in November, 41% of Americans thought the economy would improve over the next year, and 23% thought it would decline. That helped Bush win the votes of many blue-collar swing voters. Now, though, the mood has starkly shifted, with 27% expecting improvement in the next 12 months and 44% expecting the economy to worsen.

Average Americans can recite a litany of woes: Record high gasoline prices, stagflation fears, soaring local taxes, skyrocketing medical and drug bills, out-of-control school tuition, and increasing uncertainty about job and health-care security. No wonder Bush started his Apr. 28 press conference by talking about steps he's mulling to deal with high energy prices. Until the President can reverse the public's sour mood on the economy, it's unlikely that he'll move his job-approval ratings above 50% for any sustained period.

Losing touch with average Joes and Janes

During the '04 campaign, Bush successfully portrayed Democrat John Kerry as a liberal dilettante who was out of touch with common folk and tailored his policy positions to the latest political fashion. Well, nobody is accusing Bush of trying to be on the right side of public opinion in recent months. People feel strongly about the economy and health care, and they hear a debate in Washington that's focusing on judges, a brain-damaged Florida woman, and Social Security. The trouble for Bush is that voters disagree with his handling of all of those things.

Only one in three Americans approve of the President's performance on Social Security, according to a recent Gallup poll, and just one in four thought the President did the right thing when he empowered the federal courts to supersede Florida state courts in the Schiavo matter. What's more, two-thirds of the country wants to retain the Senate filibuster rules that Bush strongly opposes.

Kerry advisers feel some slight sense of vindication. "When [the President] is running against himself, it's hard for him to demonize his opponent," says pollster Mark Mellman. While most Americans say they like Bush personally and think he's a strong leader, more and more are wondering if he understands their concerns.

The albatross on Capitol Hill

Even though the President hasn't been linked in any direct way to the ethics woes of the most powerful Republican in Congress, the stench of scandal has hurt all Republicans. The GOP promised a sweeping reform agenda when it stormed Capitol Hill in 1994, and Bush successfully portrayed himself as a reformist outsider in both the '00 and '04 campaigns.

But allegations of pay-for-play politics on Capitol Hill, jet-setting golf outings underwritten by GOP lobbyists, and failed Republican attempts to neuter the House Ethics Committee have taken away the GOP advantage on reform. Republicans "are doing exactly what they campaigned so vigorously against 10 years ago," says American University historian Allan J. Lichtman.

According to Pew Research Center surveys, approval of Hill Republicans has dropped from 56% to 39% in the past three years. Congressional Democrats have suffered, too, in the anti-Congress backlash, falling from 49% approval to 37%. That proves two things: Democratic leaders aren't doing a very good job improving their party's standing. And Republicans are doing so poorly that Democrats have almost caught up -- even though they, too, are running in reverse. Bush and his party must put scandal behind them and seize the high ground on reform once more.

Iraq: No way out

Americans have been uneasy about continuing U.S. troop presence in Iraq almost from the moment the President famously declared "mission accomplished." But voters last year concluded that Bush was better equipped to handle the post-war complications than was Democrat Kerry.

Now, Americans are suffering from a new wave of concern, as Iraqi policymakers struggle to form a government, and insurgents unleash more terrorism. With U.S. casualties on the increase after a relative lull around Iraq's election time, a majority of Americans say the invasion wasn't worth it.

The heated fight on Capitol Hill over U.N. Ambassador-designate John Bolton has only reinforced doubts that many Americans had about the Administration's willingness to disregard intelligence findings that didn't conform to the prevailing ideology.


  What does the President need to do to turn things around? More good news in Iraq would help -- though he's not completely in control of events in Baghdad and beyond. Same for oil prices -- though he does have some clout with his close friends in the Saudi royal family.

Most of all, the economy can't slip back into recession on Bush's watch. That means the President must convince nervous CEOs to stick with corporate purchasing plans and jittery consumers to keep spending.

On Social Security, Republicans are still confident that Bush can win approval of his plan, especially with some recent fine-tuning of his proposal (see BW Online, 4/29/05, "Social Security: What's Missing"). "People have a habit of underestimating this President," says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. But one way or the other, Bush needs to get the issue behind him -- either by winning the support of enough moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats to find a bipartisan compromise or by finding a gracious exit strategy.


  In the ebb and flow of politics, Bush picked a good time for a slump. As Republican pollster William D. McInturff notes, "We're thousands of light years away from the next federal election." (That's 19 months from the congressional midterms, for those who are counting.)

A more pressing concern for the White House is the lame-duck syndrome that infects all second-term Presidencies at some point. Bush advisers were hoping that a string of smaller policy victories on Capitol Hill in the next month or so can generate momentum for historic overhauls of Social Security and taxes later this year.

The day after the 2004 election, an upbeat President declared, "I earned capital in the campaign...and now I intend to spend it." In the first hundred days of his second term, it's clear that he has spent a lot of political capital without much to show for it thus far. If that doesn't change soon, that faint quacking you may be hearing from the White House could become much louder.

Dunham is is chief political correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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