Bush's second-term blues
His woes fit a historical pattern that also shows presidents can recover.
WASHINGTON — If President Bush is looking for ways to salvage his second term, he need look no further than the most recent two-term presidents for examples - and even comfort.
In Ronald Reagan's second term, the Iran-contra scandal dominated headlines, but he still enacted tax reform and took major steps toward rapprochement with the Soviet Union.
Bill Clinton's signal second-term achievement, perhaps, was surviving impeachment. But he also honed his skills as a peacemaker in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, and presided over record economic growth.
The primary lesson from both, analysts say, is simply to soldier on in the face of adversity.
At the height of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, President Clinton's trick was "compartmentalization" - putting his troubles in a mental box and focusing on policy. For President Reagan, survival seemed to hinge on his ability to float above the fray.
Now, as Washington waits breathlessly to see if any White House aides are indicted in the CIA leak probe, Mr. Bush faces the prospect of a bad patch getting even worse.
His job approval ratings have already sunk to the high 30s, as Iraq, Katrina, and gas prices weigh heavily in public consciousness. The legal troubles of top congressional Republicans have added to a sense of disarray and distraction that Democrats are happy to exploit.
Within his own Republican coalition, meanwhile, Bush is fighting to repair a breach over the Supreme Court nom- ination of Harriet Miers.
But amid these challenges, polls show the president still enjoys strong support among Republicans, saving him from the kind of public-opinion free fall that his father endured in his single term.
"The fact that Bush is maintaining 80 to 84 percent approval of Republicans even in these very difficult times I think is a terrific story," GOP pollster Bill McInturff told a Monitor breakfast on Wednesday.
Keeping his base of support intact, combined with continued Republican control of Congress at least until January 2007, means Bush still has room to maneuver.
If Bush is looking for an "exit strategy" out of all the bad news, "it's policy, policy, policy," especially a push for smaller government, says Michael Franc, vice- president of the Heritage Foundation. If Bush reinvigorates his policy agenda, "that will make the last few weeks and next few weeks a hiccup," he adds.
Second terms also tend to benefit from personnel changes at the White House .
The point, presidential observers say, is to bring in new people with fresh ideas and energy. Given the long hours - predawn until after dusk - White House jobs can lead to burnout; before Bush, the average tenure was 18 months.
Andrew Card, Bush's chief of staff since day one, now holds the modern record for longevity in that post, a testament to his performance as an administrator and the mutual loyalty he and Bush share. Indeed, Bush's premium on loyalty has kept many staffers by his side. Others have been given Cabinet-level jobs, and Card is rumored as a possible next secretary of the Treasury.
Leon Panetta, the second of Clinton's four chiefs of staff, sees personnel changes as key to reviving Bush's presidency - and not just reassigning or promoting people from within, but bringing in outsiders.
"People start doing it by the numbers. They don't have that kind of excitement you had in the first term, dealing with issues, dealing with the country," says Mr. Panetta, now in California running the public policy institute he founded.
When the Iran-Contra scandal broke under Reagan, launching a far-reaching investigation into operations throughout his administration, he brought in a new chief of staff, former Republican Senate leader Howard Baker. "I think it paid off for [Reagan]," says Panetta.
Bush has more than three years left in the White House, which gives him plenty of time to clear today's hurdles.
"It's not inevitable that he will stand in gloom forever," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin.
Another key moment to watch will be Bush's State of the Union address in January. Will he tack away from his big agenda, such as his stalled plan to overhaul Social Security, and move toward narrower, more-achievable goals?
"Those big things are hard to do under the best of circumstances," says John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "Surely there are smaller things he can do, such as with the tax code."
It is also a staple of second-term presidents to focus on foreign policy, where Congress tends to behave deferentially.