Bush's Term II: a slow road

Despite setbacks, the president carefully keeps options open on the key issue of Social Security.

Just seven months after the election results rolled in, some Washington cognoscenti are already wondering if President Bush has fallen into the second-term trap - overreaching and winding up with a fistful of air.

Nonsense, say White House officials, who counsel patience. The president is trying to do big things - such as remaking Social Security and transforming the Middle East - and success takes time. To be sure, Bush has suffered setbacks in recent weeks, including the challenge to his nomination of John Bolton as UN ambassador, surging violence in Iraq, and lack of momentum on Social Security reform. Job-approval ratings stuck in the mid-40s - and even lower public esteem for Bush's handling of key issues - reduce Congress's incentive to go along with his agenda.

When asked at this week's press conference whether he was losing momentum, he replied first with some successes - bankruptcy legislation, class-action lawsuit reform, and the long-delayed confirmation of a federal judge. But the bulk of his answer focused on initiatives that are stalled in Congress - energy legislation, Central American free trade, and Social Security. And he sought to put the onus for success on the legislators, speaking of "the standard by which Congress should be judged."

Ultimately, say presidential scholars, no one should count Bush out. He is a seasoned political operator, going back to his father's presidency, and it is clear from the way he speaks that he knows how Washington works. On Social Security, he has not repeated President Clinton's fatal error of laying down an ultimatum on healthcare reform. And Bush says he won't put forth draft legislation on Social Security, because "the first bill on the Hill is always dead on arrival." He has left himself wiggle room for a deal.

"I would be astonished if something does not emerge from the Hill on Social Security which he declares success on," says Fred Greenstein, an emeritus professor of political science at Princeton University. It may not contain precisely the kind of personal accounts that he wants, Dr. Greenstein surmises, but given Bush's longstanding personal devotion to the concept, it will probably have "some token in the direction of private accounts."

Bob Dole, the former Senate Republican leader and a veteran of the 1983 Social Security reform, says the president needs to sit down with the leadership of the Senate, specifically the leaders of the key committees, not for a photo op, but to try to find common ground, "if it takes an hour or a week or a month or two months."

"It's got to be bipartisan," said the former senator in a recent local public-radio interview. "You can't shove a Social Security program down somebody's throat."

So far, in public, Bush has tended toward more confrontational language in talking about his agenda. At this week's press conference, he said three times that his job as president is to "push."

Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, says it's too early to bring in the committee chairs. "This is a collaborative partnership with Congress; it's not the president getting into the tactical decisions of passing legislation," says Mr. Duffy. "That is Congress's job."

Instead, since last December, the president has been holding relaxed private get-togethers to talk Social Security with members of the House and Senate, in groups of 10 to 15. The meetings appear to be part presidential lobbying and part focus group, with members providing Bush and top aides - including at times political adviser Karl Rove, chief of staff Andy Card, and Vice President Cheney - feedback on how the president's proposal is playing around the country. Some of the sessions are held in the president's private residence.

So far, says Duffy, 167 House members, most of them Republican, and 40 senators, a more bipartisan mix, have been in.

"It's an ongoing and frank exchange," says Duffy. Bush benefits, for example, by learning that some seniors still worry their benefits will change, he says. "The president will go and factor that into his thought process on what he talks about publicly."

In the end, Bush must also grapple with a key fact of life for second-term presidents - that increasingly, even members of Congress from his own party will put their own reelection concerns ahead of the president's desire for a legacy. Even though upwards of 90 percent of members are in "safe" districts, incumbents are a typically conservative bunch and don't like to take chances.

Debate over whether Bush is already becoming a lame duck is, in a way, immaterial. "I'd use the analogy of a decay rate," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congress and Presidential Studies at American University. "The decay rate has increased, in terms of his power base. It always does with presidents, especially in second terms. Now a lot of people are focused on it, which makes it worse for him."

But he doesn't rule out a deal on Social Security. The final scene, he says, may look something like Clinton after he signed welfare form, when he put his arm around Tommy Thompson, then governor of Wisconsin and an early innovator on the issue, and said, in effect, "thank you for my plan."

The real test of how much power Bush continues to have will come when he faces a vacancy on the Supreme Court, and whether he can win confirmation for his candidate, says Professor Thurber.

Another presidential-power variable is the war on terror. As memories of 9/11 fade and support for the Iraq war wanes, Bush fades in his central attraction to the public: as commander in chief. And so, says Fred Greenstein of Princeton, "barring another 9/11, he's never going to ride that high" in public approval.

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