President Bush has been buffeted by one calamity after another. Try what he may, he just can’t seem to find traction for his second-term agenda.
With midterm congressional elections approaching, it won’t get any easier.
The bad news has been coming in waves, from furors over Hurricane Katrina and warrantless wiretapping to the error-plagued rollout of the new Medicare prescription drug program, Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident, growing civil strife in Iraq, and now the Republican revolt over the administration’s Dubai port decision.
The controversies have rocked the White House and caused alarm among Republican strategists. Their party’s electoral hopes in November may depend on whether Bush is able to right his troubled presidency.
“I’m a big reformer. And it’s time to reform congressional relations at the White House,” said Scott Reed, a GOP consultant who managed Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.
Some of Bush’s recent difficulties were aggravated by the White House failure to consult earlier and more frequently on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are easily offended by perceived presidential slights.
This failure to communicate was most pronounced in the current dispute over who should manage America’s seaports, but earlier surfaced in Bush’s decision to direct the National Security Agency to engage in warrantless domestic electronic spying as part of the war on terror.
Republicans, who showed near unequivocal support during Bush’s first term, have been backing away as they weigh their own political situations.
Since his State of the Union address Jan. 30, the president has traveled several days a week to promote his agenda, especially proposals on health care, U.S. competitiveness and energy self-reliance. His 2005 proposals to revamp Social Security and the tax code remain, but on a back burner.
Yet most of this time, his message has been eclipsed by the controversies raging in Washington.
White House officials were stunned by the most recent developments — the Cheney shooting accident and then the seaport deal. Aides ruefully wondered out loud, What’s next?
No one could have foreseen such offbeat episodes that forced the administration into crisis-management mode and diverted attention from Bush’s agenda, said one senior official.
Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University, said many of Bush’s woes are self-inflicted but there’s still time to revive his presidency and for him to avoid premature lame duck labels.
“But he’s got to establish his priorities slowly and carefully in conjunction with Republicans in Congress, then work with them,” Wayne said. “He can’t just pronounce from his podium and expect people to dutifully march behind him.”
In a week that began with a veto threat, Bush lost the support of his top two congressional lieutenants. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened to freeze the agreement to hand over management of six U.S. ports to a state-owned company based in the United Arab Emirates.
By week’s end, some of the fury had ebbed as DP World voluntarily agreed to briefly postpone its American operations. The White House supported the delay for a security review — and acknowledged it could have done a better job in briefing Congress.
But the controversy threatened to jeopardize what has been the president’s strongest suit in the polls — fighting terrorism. A chorus of Democratic and Republican lawmakers suggested the deal would give a company with ties to a government with a mixed anti-terrorism record a distressing level of access to U.S. ports.
“Bush is seen as a good protector for the country. The more the perceived missteps, the greater the chances for further declines in support,” said pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
Unchanging poll rating
Bush’s approval was at 40 percent in an AP-Ipsos poll conducted in early February, and most recent polling has shown it at about the same level.
Last week, it was hard to find any U.S. political figure outside the administration, other than former President Carter, ready to defend the port deal.
A few senior Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner of Virginia, offered encouragement that matters could be worked out satisfactorily.
Still, Warner said he hoped at some point “the administration would recognize the very strong sentiment in the Congress.” It wasn’t exactly a show of support.
Presidents often see their ratings improve when abroad. Even if he doesn’t get a bump from this week’s trip to India and Pakistan, Bush may welcome the diversion from the unrelenting bad news at home.
Most of the disputes will still be around when he returns.