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Setbacks and infighting mar Bush's second term, threaten his legacy

WASHINGTON—President Bush is meeting the second-term jinx less than a year after he won triumphant re-election.

For presidents such as Nixon, Reagan and Clinton, the jinx arrived as scandal. For Bush, it's that and more—a convergence of setbacks.

His White House appears in disarray, its once sure-footed political operation stumbling over his choice for the Supreme Court. His party is rebelling over the court pick, runaway spending and more. Top aides face a grand-jury investigation, and key allies in Congress are in legal trouble, too.

His bold domestic agenda, centered on transforming Social Security, is all but dead. His dream of transforming the Middle East is a nightmare in Iraq. And he appears powerless, at least for now, to do anything to climb back.

Underscoring it all: A new Pew Research Center poll Thursday shows that Americans are increasingly sour about Bush, his Republican Party, the war in Iraq and the overall state of the country.

One of many poll findings troubling for the nation's governing party: The number of Republicans who think Bush will be judged a successful president has dropped by 10 percentage points since his second inauguration nine months ago. Independents who think so have dropped by 11 points.

Overall, pessimism about Bush's legacy is broader than it was for Bill Clinton in October 1994, a low point of his presidency just weeks before voters threw his Democratic Party out of power in Congress.

"It's a dramatic turnabout," said presidential historian Robert Dallek. "Events have overtaken him."

All modern presidents have stumbled in their second terms. Emboldened by re-election, perhaps to the point of hubris, they've angered their parties, overreached, sunk into scandal or otherwise found their terms floundering just when they started dreaming about their place in history.

Most fought back. Franklin Roosevelt survived a second-term fight with his own Democratic Congress over his attempt to "pack" the Supreme Court and went on to win two more elections. Ronald Reagan survived the Iran-Contra scandal and left office a revered figure.

But Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam forced him to step down rather than seek another term. Richard Nixon resigned. Clinton was impeached, then acquitted by the Senate.

Bush's predicament, while similarly of his own making, doesn't threaten his hold on the office. But it has gravely hurt his agenda and could threaten his party's hold on Congress next year.

Consider, for example, his use of "political capital" as measured by election results or popularity, a key tool of presidential power. Bush has long believed that he should spend political capital when he has it to bend Congress and the country to his will.

But that isn't working this year. When he stumped to overhaul Social Security, his support dropped. And his repeated speeches to shore up support for the Iraq war haven't worked.

"Bush's poll numbers are going from bad to worse," said Andy Kohut, director of Pew Research Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan research group.

"His job-approval rating has fallen to another new low, as has public satisfaction with national conditions, which now stands at just 29 percent. And for the first time since taking office in 2001, a plurality of Americans (41 percent) believe that George W. Bush will be viewed as an unsuccessful president."

Among the Pew poll's other findings:

_38 percent of Americans approve of how Bush is handling his job, down from 50 percent at his inauguration in January;

_29 percent are satisfied with the way things are going in the country, down from 40 percent in January;

_Americans believe it was wrong to invade Iraq by a margin of 50 percent to 44 percent, a reverse from the January margin of 51-44 that thought it was the right decision.

The public is also skeptical about whether Bush had made most things better or worse. By a margin of 66-6, they think he's made the federal budget deficit worse. By 40-12, they think he made Social Security worse. By 57-19, they think he's made the economy worse. By 35-25, they think he's weakened morality in the country.

The only area where a plurality thinks he's made things better is national security, where they think he's improved things by a margin of 47-30.

What cost Bush so much? Iraq, of course. Anxiety about the economy, sparked by soaring gasoline prices. A disappointing federal reaction to Hurricane Katrina.

Bush also is paying a price for picking Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. First, the choice outraged many conservatives. Then, a White House attuned to attacking critics turned on its conservative base, calling them elitists and sexist.

Republicans outside the White House have plenty to fear as they face the 2006 elections for control of Congress and the 2008 campaign for a new presidential nominee to lead the post-Bush era.

As of now, the political future is dominated by a desire to go in a different direction than Bush, a yearning held especially among two blocs of swing voters that can decide close elections—independents and white Roman Catholics.

Yet Bush holds some residual strengths.

Pew found that his reputation as a strong leader and trustworthy, while lower than earlier in his presidency, has held steady since late summer. Yet that also illustrates the political box he's in. If he were to withdraw Miers' nomination, it might please conservatives, but it also could undermine his standing as a steady leader.

Moreover, Bush lacks for now the one thing that could rally more people back to his side: an election opponent. Unable to force the public to choose between him and a Democrat, he and his White House are stuck with a governing strategy. And this fall, it's in trouble.


(The Pew Research Center poll of 1,500 adults was conducted Oct. 6-10 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. For more on the Pew poll, go to


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

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