Bush challenged by low approval ratings

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 27, 2008 

WASHINGTON — President Bush gets what may be his final chance to steer the public debate Monday night in his last State of the Union address.

With his aides privately acknowledging that the moments when Bush can be relevant are dwindling fast, the president is expected to press for a shortened list of proposals. With his legacy in mind, he'll urge Congress to extend some key initiatives of his tenure: tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind law, the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Bush will be speaking under circumstances very different than before, however, with economic fears roiling the country and the war in Iraq and terrorism concerns in the background, at least temporarily.

The president is expected to urge swift passage of a $150 billion economic stimulus package of tax rebates and other measures, which House of Representatives leaders and the White House — but not yet the Senate — have agreed to, according to White House officials and others.

He'll also press for the extension of a law that allows expanded electronic eavesdropping, including on communications that transit U.S. territory. The law expires Feb. 1.

On the foreign policy front, the president is expected to argue that the "surge" of nearly 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq has improved that country's security. He'll tout his administration's commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace and its efforts against AIDS and hunger in the developing world, particularly in Africa.

But absent will be the sweeping proclamations of the past, when Bush designated U.S. adversaries an "axis of evil" and called for changes in Social Security and immigration law.

"It is unrealistic to expect that this Congress is going to take on such big problems this year," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. Bush, she said, will focus on "new policy proposals with realistic chances of enactment."

Any president in his eighth year has difficulty commanding the country's attention.

But Bush, who on Monday will have 357 days left in office, carries additional burdens, presidential scholars said.

He's the author of a widely unpopular war. The Democrats control the Congress. His approval ratings have been stuck below 40 percent for more than two years.

A Gallup Poll analysis released in mid-January found that Bush's average approval rating in 2007 — 33.3 percent — was the fourth-lowest annual rating for a post-World War II president. Only Richard Nixon in 1974 and Harry Truman in 1951 and 1952 fared worse.

But the biggest competition for Bush's message may be the up-in-the-air nominating contests in both parties for the presidential election, a race in which Bush has no clear heir.

"He's got a problem. No one's really listening anymore," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research organization.

"The overriding reality is he's mired in very low approval ratings," and there's a "very exciting contest to see who succeeds him," Mann said.

Bush, who's never been shy about using his executive powers, has promised a "sprint to the finish" in his final year in office. His aides are eager to dismiss any notion that Monday's address to a joint session of Congress will be a valedictory.

"The speech is focused on the future. It is not a review of the first seven years of his time as president," Perino said Friday.

Some political analysts said it's too early to write Bush off, given his aggressive use of presidential powers and his track record of facing down Congress on issues such as troop withdrawals from Iraq.

Bush is "a brilliant politician in being able to do that kind of stuff," said James Pfiffner, a professor of public policy at Virginia's George Mason University.

For the next 12 months, Bush still will be able to block Congress on occasion, use his powers as commander in chief and exert authority via executive orders, Pfiffner said.

"I wouldn't put anything past him. He's a very effective executive ... in getting what he wants," Pfiffner said.

Indeed, Perino said Friday that Bush will highlight several policies that he believes he can implement "without congressional involvement." Those include revisions of the Federal Housing Administration that Bush asked for in April 2006, she said.

"You can never say it's over until it's over," agreed Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas.

Arguing that Bush in recent months has operated primarily in a "blocking role" over issues such as the Democrats' demand to end the Iraq war, Buchanan said the president has the chance to do something positive if he joins forces with Congress to deal with the economic crisis.

"He can do himself some good politically. Not necessarily resurrect his fortunes," Buchanan said.

Americans' economic jitters may mean that the State of the Union address will get more attention than it otherwise would.

Bush also can take solace in the fact that more Americans agree with him that the situation in Iraq is improving. A November poll by the Pew Research Center found that 48 percent said that the military effort in Iraq was going "very" or "fairly" well. Last February, just after Bush announced the troop "surge," that figure was 30 percent.

But the day after the State of the Union, Florida will hold its pivotal presidential primary, followed soon after by "Super Tuesday."

Said the Brookings Institution's Mann: "I don't doubt that (Bush) is going to do a lot more foreign travel" in 2008.

In fact, Bush is about to announce a five-nation Africa tour, according to Western diplomats in Nairobi.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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