On domestic policy, Bush support lags

Greenspan's critique of tax plan deals White House another setback.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the days following the Republican Party's historic wins in last fall's midterm elections, President Bush seemed so strong politically that White House officials boasted he might have a "second 100 days" to push his priorities through Congress.

But while the president has had some success on his foreign agenda - building support for a possible war with Iraq - he's running into surprisingly stiff resistance on top domestic proposals.

Aspects of his economic stimulus plan - from the elimination of dividend taxes to the creation of new retirement-savings accounts - have met with unfavorable reactions from both Democrats and Republican committee chairmen. Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan registered his disapproval of the cost in Senate testimony yesterday. Likewise, even before Bush's plan for Medicare reform and a prescription-drug benefit was officially released, elements of it ignited such controversy that the administration has scrambled to rework it.

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Mr. Bush is promoting his domestic agenda this week and next, pushing his plan for faith-based initiatives and discussing economic proposals. But analysts say he may not get much traction.

For one thing, the Iraq conflict and the terrorist threat continue to consume much of the president's attention. And at a time of foreign crisis, there's often less will - and less cash - for sweeping domestic change. Indeed, some analysts argue the president would have had a hard time selling this domestic agenda, even under the best of circumstances.

"Some of [the trouble] is a reflection of a little bit of overreaching and hubris on the part of the White House," says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "But ... this is an exceptionally sweeping, radical agenda in the teeth of a Congress that doesn't easily have the numbers to make those things happen."

Historically, presidents often see domestic agendas stall amid foreign crises - particularly if they include ambitious reform. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was thrown off track by the Vietnam War; Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal got mired in World War II.

"During the Second World War, most members of Congress were foursquare behind [Roosevelt]," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "But [on] domestic matters ... he ran into a lot of obstacles."

Since lawmakers from both parties usually support the president on war - unless the war goes badly - that leaves the domestic arena as the only place for the opposition party to draw contrasts and throw barbs. While a number of Democrats supported Bush's tax-cut plan in 2001, most have aggressively attacking his proposals this time around.

Still, it's disagreements with Republicans that are most striking. Analysts point out that the White House failed to consult with key GOP lawmakers before unveiling some proposals. As a result, many were caught off guard by the size of proposed tax cuts and by the plan to do away with taxes on dividends.

And while cutting taxes is often a top priority for Republicans, many conservatives have expressed concern about the ballooning deficit - particularly in a time of war, when the government will need extra funding for national security, with the economy already struggling.

Over two days of Senate testimony, Mr. Greenspan questioned the expense of Bush's tax cuts, warning lawmakers not to allow "growing budget deficits to again become entrenched." Greenspan also stated that uncertainties over a war with Iraq were further roiling the economy.

The administration's rumored plan to reform Medicare by offering seniors a prescription-drug benefit only if they leave the traditional fee-for-services program and join some kind of managed-care plan has also caused waves within Bush's own party. Many Republicans view it as untenable, given that they campaigned in 2002 on a broad prescription-drug benefit for all seniors.

The danger for Bush is that if he can't make domestic headway, he could face a fate like that of his father - who lost reelection in part because many perceived him as focusing too heavily on foreign policy while neglecting matters at home. Already, there are troubling signs for the president: According to a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, only 39 percent of respondents rate Bush's handling of the economy "excellent" or "good." He does much better on foreign affairs, with 49 percent rating his performance as excellent or good, and 67 percent giving him top marks on fighting terrorism.

Still, analysts say that if Bush successfully prosecutes a war, he's likely to see at least a short-term bump in his popularity - which he could use to push some of his domestic agenda through Congress. "He'll have a brief window of opportunity," says Mr. Baker. "But that kind of popularity is very perishable."

Bush ratings follow economy, not Iraq

Bush leadership index* January: 63.0 February: 60.6

Economic optimism index* January: 52.4 February: 50.0

Importance of military action to oust Saddam Hussein within 6 months

"Very" or "somewhat" important January: 70 % February: 77 %

"Not very" or "not at all" important January: 27 % February: 21 %

*A reading above 50 is positive

Source: Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, Feb. 3-9. Margin of error: 3.3 percentage points.

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