Bush's critics find it hard to make inroads

Some question his handling of terror war. Others home in on the economy's woes.

Chink. Chink. Chink.

That's the sound of Democrats trying to chip away at President Bush's handling of the war on terrorism. Of all the issues before him, it is the one on which he gets the highest approval ratings and the one on which he has staked his presidency. It's also been largely out of bounds as a target of partisan criticism.

Not anymore.

Within the past few days, such high-profile Democrats as former Vice President Al Gore, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry have pointedly questioned Mr. Bush's management of the war. Among the complaints: Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda operatives are still at large, and Afghanistan's fledgling government has not been properly buttressed.

Political analysts say the comments are simply initial probings by potential presidential hopefuls searching for areas of Bush vulnerability. A Democratic party official rejects that notion, calling the questions "legitimate."

But regardless of the motive, they point to a phenomenon of this White House: the remarkable ability of Bush to deflect criticism – which only makes it more difficult for Democrats to make political inroads.

"He's done a very good job to date" of warding off criticism, says Jennifer Palmieri, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, and a former press aide to President Clinton – who was the target of far more attacks than this president. Bush, she says, is "more Teflon than even Reagan."

Reagan's touch

Ronald Reagan acquired the "Teflon" label midway through his two-term presidency for his uncanny ability to distance himself from a string of ethical lapses among officials in his administration. The affable former actor would often simply dismiss the charges – not in the dark, denial mode of a Richard Nixon, but with his trademark good humor and sense of sincerity.

Bush may be achieving the same results as Mr. Reagan, but the circumstances are completely different, says Bob Denton, a mass-media and politics expert at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

"With President Bush, it is absolutely about a wartime presidency," says Mr. Denton. "Americans have been very deferential in times of war, and as long as we feel threatened and at war, the better Bush's popularity will be and the grace that the public will give him."

The overriding priority of the war has helped to overshadow such controversies as White House ties to Enron, various environmental decisions, an emphasis on secrecy, and the restriction of civil liberties in the pursuit of terrorist suspects.

Changing the subject

But so, too, have the presidential tricks of the trade. There's nothing like changing the subject (from criticism of US intelligence to a proposal for a homeland security department), or releasing controversial news when the fewest number of Americans are paying attention (late on a Friday in May, the administration announced mining companies could dispose of dirt and rocks in rivers and streams).

Like Reagan, Bush has personal popularity going for him, Denton says. His straight-shooter, I'm-like-you persona makes him likable. "Trust and likability are more important than most policy or politics," he explains.

All this has made it very tough for Democrats to find any chinks in the president's armor – until last week, when telecommunications giant WorldCom announced it misplaced nearly $4 billion in expenses. Then, Democrats stampeded to blame Republicans for lax oversight and a loosening of regulations.

If anything, it is the economy – and not the war on terrorism – where the president is vulnerable, says Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center in Washington.

Indeed, even Reagan's charm could not forestall a plummet in approval ratings as a result of a poorly performing economy.

Last week, the Pew poll found that only a third of Americans believe Bush is doing all he can on the economy. Yet 74 percent approves of the way he's directing the war effort.

Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, says he is "baffled" by the round of criticism directed at the war effort. As for Mr. Gore's complaint that Mr. bin Laden and much of Al Qaeda are not yet captured, Mr. Sheridan says: "What does he think, that the military hasn't tried hard enough? Obviously everybody's focused on winning the war on terrorism."

But as Denton points out, Americans don't like to lose. And as time goes on, the question "Are we winning?" will become ever more important.

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