Bush Aims to Use Clout on Home Front
Success against Iraq boosted his popularity, but many say translating it to the domestic arena will be difficult
WASHINGTON — A PRESIDENT in his finest hour has begun trying to translate his commander-in-chief popularity into domestic leadership. It will be very difficult to spread his support very far from the defense and foreign policy arena where he won it, according to expert opinion.
``It's like a foreign currency and there's no exchange window,'' says Paul Light, a presidency expert at the University of Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey Institute and a former Senate staff member.
With a public approval that surpasses even the postwar Harry Truman, George Bush has some political capital to spend. The polls themselves, however, show how narrowly the public can invest its support. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Wednesday showed 90 percent approval of the Bush presidency overall, but only 49 percent approval of his handling of the economy.
Nevertheless, this week he began making direct connections between the triumphal war in the Gulf and his legislative agenda. It is likely to work far better on some issues - and on some constituencies - than others, according to several independent government analysts.
On defense matters, Mr. Bush is likely to be carrying considerable newfound clout. He clearly wants to use it to outflank the pork-barrel interests of congressmen who protect certain defense contracts and military bases - needed or not.
``We cannot lead a new world abroad if at home it's business as usual on defense and diplomacy,'' he said in his address to Congress Wednesday night. ``It's time to turn away from the temptation to protect unneeded weapons systems and obsolete bases.''
The president is likely to find his domestic clout has grown most on shaping defense forces and promoting Strategic Defense Initiative technology, says Stephen Wayne, a professor of political science at George Washington University. But many military bases will be even harder to shut down now, he notes, because they have contributed reservists to the war effort.
``In the Senate, Bush can have what he wants on defense,'' says Dr. Light. In the House, some powerful chairmen - Les Aspin of the Armed Services Committee and Dante Fascell of the Foreign Relations Committee - may still slow the president down, he adds.
Bush's ambitions for a second honeymoon with Congress go well beyond defense matters. In his speech Wednesday, he cited a full menu of domestic initiatives: the National Energy Strategy, parental choice of public schools, a new crime bill, a civil rights bill, and a highway bill.
After citing this list, he made a challenge: ``If our forces could win the ground war in 100 hours, then surely Congress could pass this legislation in 100 days.''
Even optimists, such as Gettysburg College political scientist and presidential scholar Shirley Anne Warshaw, believe Bush's popularity does not translate into broad domestic support on highly controversial issues.
If he chose a few, widely supported issues to promote, such as education and a moderate environmental policy, she says, then his political capital would buy him a lot. ``Congress is a product of public opinion,'' she says.
Another question is how much time Bush has to bask in the glow of Gulf glory. Two factors could begin dissipating that glow, notes Mark Peterson, a Brooking Institution guest fellow and Harvard political scientist:
If the number of Iraqis killed in the lopsided war turns out to be very high, perhaps 100,000 or higher, and many were gunned down in ragged retreat, it may strike at American consciences.
If Shiite turmoil in Iraq spreads in an Iran-style fundamentalist revolution, then the much-touted new world order may look familiar and unattractive to Americans.
If Bush's success abroad is unusual, presidents almost always find foreign affairs more satisfying than domestic. They have far more constitutional power on the foreign front, and their role abroad tends to unify Americans behind them just as domestic politics often divides.
Bush is perhaps an exaggeration of that pattern. Scholars cite two factors in his success:
Bush correctly defined the problem in the Gulf from the beginning as punishing Saddam Hussein, says Marc Landy, senior fellow at the Gordon Public Policy Center near Boston. This judgment was ``simple, but profound,'' he says.
``This is a man on foreign policy who was absolutely committed to winning,'' says Light. On the domestic scene, ``he hasn't had the staying power.''