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Bush's bold agenda bogged down

WASHINGTON—President Bush painted his second-term vision in bold, aggressive strokes: He would reform Social Security, continue to reshape the nation's education system and remodel the nation's judiciary by appointing more conservative judges to the federal bench.

"I've earned capital in this election and I'm going to spend it for what I told the people I'd spend it on: Social Security, tax reform, moving the economy forward, education and winning the war on terrorism," Bush told reporters two days after he won re-election.

Three months into his second term, however, Bush's bold agenda is bogged down by public skepticism about some of his proposals, growing resistance from Democrats, dissension within his party's ranks and what some analysts consider second-term hubris.

With gas prices near record highs and stock markets jittery, Bush's drive for privatized Social Security accounts has been met by deep public skepticism. His judicial nominees are stalled, his choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is stuck in committee, and his job-approval rating recently dropped to 45 percent, the lowest of his presidency and well below that of other recent second-term presidents.

Recent surveys have found a disconnect between most Americans' mainly economic priorities and the White House's and the Republican Congress' preoccupation with issues ranging from Terri Schiavo to plans to kill the filibuster.

"The average American sitting out there in the country is still very skittish about jobs, health care costs, gas prices," said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup poll. "Overall, right now, Bush is down on anything we put in front of them. It's kind of like the American public is generally more depressed."

Bush's misfortunes, particularly the unexpected setbacks over his choice for U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, have emboldened Democrats, who are uniting against him in ways they didn't during Bush's first term, when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks eclipsed partisan politics.

The president's problems have raised concerns and divisions among Republicans.

Some members of both parties and analysts are uttering the words that no president wants to hear.

"We're in the lame-duck period," said John Zogby, an independent pollster. "Each day that passes, the duck gets lamer. The window (of opportunity) has passed. If he wasn't able to come off the voting (in Iraq) and turn it into more of a popular mandate, I don't know what he can do."

Administration officials, Republican Party leaders and others say it's premature to consider Bush's second term dead.

Indeed, the White House made good on some of its second-term campaign promises when Bush signed into law two pieces of legislation that overhaul the nation's bankruptcy laws and limit class-action lawsuits. Just days ago, the House of Representatives passed its version of an energy bill, which Bush had sought.

"I think it's very unfair and shortsighted to criticize a president who has been successful in the energy arena, effective in getting meaningful litigation reform, when that was not supposed to happen," said Claude A. Allen, Bush's top domestic policy adviser.

"The president is still focused, he's still aggressive about pursuing an agenda that serves the American people across the board and is not distracted by what might be some critics saying that he is narrowly focused on some issues."

Still, some Bush supporters are concerned that if events continue as they are, Republicans will pay a price in the 2006 congressional elections.

Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who ran former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's presidential campaign, said Bush can right his ship, but time is running out.

"The six-year itch is a marker for this White House," he said. "A weakened position, a loss of seats in Congress, would speed up the lame-duck status. This is a big year; this is a big session for the president's legacy."

How did Bush get into this spot? Several analysts and lawmakers said the administration miscalculated or misread what matters to Americans, pointing to the Schiavo case.

Bush and congressional Republicans hastily passed legislation to increase the chances for the brain-damaged Florida woman to have her feeding tube reinserted over her husband's objections.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll earlier this month found that 48 percent of Republicans surveyed thought that reinserting Schiavo's tube was the wrong thing to do while 39 percent said it was right. Moreover, 18 percent of Republican respondents said they lost respect for Bush on the Schiavo issue, and 41 percent lost respect for Congress.

"They all went too far out on a limb," said Betty Glad, a presidential biographer and political scientist at the University of South Carolina. Bush "is suffering a backlash for that."

Bush is also experiencing public backlash against his Social Security agenda.

He set Social Security as a top priority, despite pleas from supporters, notably U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue. They all wanted the White House and Congress to focus on easily passable legislation before tackling the nation's most popular retirement program.

Bush initially tried to sell changing the Social Security system by insisting it was broken and needed fixing before it goes bankrupt.

But a January poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 47 percent of Americans think Social Security works pretty well and requires only minor fixes. Thirty-four percent think major changes are required, and 15 percent think Social Security needs to be completely overhauled.

Unable to convince Americans that Social Security was in crisis, White House officials embarked on a 60-city, 60-day tour to explain the Social Security situation and tout Bush's privatized account proposal.

Gallup's Newport said the tour is doing Bush more harm than good.

"The more he talks about Social Security, the lower his (approval) rating goes on his handling of Social Security," said Newport.

Several analysts have chalked up Bush's Social Security problems to post-election hubris and a poor job by a normally savvy White House in rolling out a Social Security plan.

"We're not seeing the usual smarts we see in this group," Glad said.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said it's too early to count Bush out, especially since the White House was expecting a more vigorous second-term fight from Democrats. The president has time, albeit limited, to recover from his setbacks, Craig said.

"I believe there is some kind of deadline out there," he said. "I think it's the deadline that comes ... prior to or near the time that somebody on the Supreme Court says, `I'm retiring.'"


(Ron Hutcheson and Kevin G. Hall contributed.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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