Bush faces a stalled agenda, as 2006 races rev up

He focuses on Social Security and Iraq as public support fades and bipartisan talk ebbs.

As President Bush's ambitious agenda sags under the weight of public skepticism - and a growing willingness among some Republicans to break ranks - political observers would love nothing more than to be the proverbial fly on the wall in the Oval Office.

Of course, those who know what Bush and his advisers are saying to each other aren't talking. But in public, at least, the White House betrays no hint that it will change course on its two biggest agenda items, Social Security and Iraq. A third priority, tax reform, has been put off until the fall.

Only five months into his second term, Bush has already begun to abandon talk of bipartisanship and blame the Democrats for what he calls their "agenda of the roadblock" - a tactic that points more toward scoring points in the 2006 congressional elections than winning converts to his side in the current, closely divided Congress. The 2006 campaign has already begun, creating an incentive for Republicans to put protecting themselves ahead of loyalty to the term- limited Bush.

The White House, for its part, seems to be following a familiar pattern of sticking to its guns until the last possible moment.

"They don't yield until it appears that all will be lost unless they compromise," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "They definitely play a game of brinkmanship, and that is to convey an impression that's not just determined but pugnacious. Then, when it appears that that kind of bluff doesn't work, then and only then do they quietly consider compromises."

The future of the Social Security battle

On Social Security, Bush faces the uncomfortable fact that the more he travels the country trying to sell his plan to overhaul the system, the lower the poll numbers sink. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows that only 25 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the issue. The White House blames a well-funded opposition for scaring the public. Polls show Americans like the idea of personal private accounts that could bring a higher return, but are worried about the high transition costs and cuts in benefits.

Republican leaders in Congress, hoping to avoid total defeat, are floating options for legislation that they believe may be doable - though none fulfill all of Bush's wishes. One scenario would be a bill that partially addresses Social Security's long-term solvency and provides a step in the direction of personal accounts.

Given the legislative timetable heading into summer and fall - particularly one that may include a diversion into a high-stakes Supreme Court confirmation process, if Chief Justice William Rehnquist decides to retire - Bush may not feel he has to compromise on Social Security for months.

The president will know it's time to cut a deal on Social Security when he gets word from the two key committee chairs dealing with the plan, Rep. Bill Thomas of California and Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, analysts say.

More rosy rhetoric on Iraq

On Iraq, Bush has less control over the fate of his vision for democracy and self-sufficiency. But he is showing no sign of backing off his rosy rhetoric, even as polls show that a growing majority of Americans believe the Iraq effort is going badly. In the near term, the president's schedule calls for a high-profile meeting in the Oval Office with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari on June 24 and a series of speeches designed to shore up public opinion on Iraq, including an address on June 28, the first anniversary of the turnover of sovereignty to the Iraqis.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Bush invoked the war on terror - an issue on which he still enjoys a slim majority of public support - and again linked it to Iraq: "Our troops are fighting these terrorists in Iraq so you will not have to face them here at home."

He also continued to make the case that American troops must remain in place until "victory" is achieved. Timetables for withdrawal remain an anathema, though the topic made international headlines last week as conservative Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina - whose district includes Camp Lejeune Marine base - and three other members introduced a resolution calling on Bush to submit a plan to begin withdrawing from Iraq in October 2006.

The resolution is largely symbolic, but caused a stir - and eventually, a hint of backtracking by Congressman Jones. On Friday, he posted a statement on his website, saying that he does not support immediate withdrawal, but rather "a public discussion of our goals and the future of our military involvement" in Iraq.

Even if Bush won't brook discussion of withdrawal, critics of US policy argue that he can help himself by acknowledging growing public anxiety, and perhaps forestall charges of a credibility gap between what Americans are seeing on TV and what they're hearing from the Rose Garden.

"There's nothing worse for a president than to be perceived as being separated from reality," says Marshall Wittmann of the Democratic Leadership Council. On June 28, "he has to say two things: We have to win in Iraq, but it's going to be at a very steep cost... He also has to explain what the stakes of failure are."

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