Bush's Year-2 challenges parallel those of predecessors

Senate battles, stalled initiatives, and departure of Karen Hughes signal a new phase for the president.

In the life cycle of the presidency, you could equate Year 2 with adolescence.

The novelty phase of the first year is over, and a president enters that awkward, troublesome stage – rebuffed by a Congress focused on mid-term elections; abandoned by senior aides who return to private life; unsure in the midst of some unforeseen crisis; and job-approval ratings falling.

One could argue that George W. Bush, like his predecessors, is showing signs of presidential teenagehood. Setbacks – be they on the Hill, in the Mideast, or with his own staff – complicate life in the Oval Office. And those sky-high approval ratings are showing the effects of gravity.

"Administrations mature, and this is just a normal process they're going through," says Martha Kumar, a presidential expert at Towson University in Baltimore. As a result, "the administration doesn't look as invincible as it once did."

If past is prologue, this does not bode well for the president's agenda – at least on the domestic front, which is the battleground for the November congressional elections. Indeed, the White House has been complaining about the "obstructionist" Senate for months, demanding action on everything from trade to permanent tax cuts to judicial nominees.

This week, Mr. Bush used a speech reviving his "compassionate conservative" image to push initiatives supporting faith-based social programs, welfare reform, and expanded health insurance. In April, he devoted an entire week to an issue-a-day hounding of the Senate.

At the same time, some outsiders wonder whether the highly disciplined White House and its on-target message may start to break down, given the pending departure of Karen Hughes, the president's most trusted adviser. She is the grand orchestrator – and enforcer – of the public statements at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"They'll either get somebody to take her place who will implement the same kind of discipline, or you'll see some breaks in the dike," says Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, whose White House was roiled by personnel changes.

But not everyone is accepting the "terrible twos" scenario for this president.

Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the Hudson Institute here, sees the various Bush setbacks as minor, and describes the president as virtually untouched by them. "Compared to past presidencies, yes, he's had some problems, but nothing catastrophic," Mr. Wittmann says. Rather, he says this White House has pushed right past adolescence to a "maturity" rare for Year 2.

President Clinton, for instance, watched his major domestic initiative – health-care reform -- go down in flames in his second year. His party then took a historic beating in the midterm elections, with voters handing control of both chambers in Congress to Republicans for the first time in nearly 40 years.

This president, in contrast, took care of his top two domestic priorities – tax cuts and education reform – in Year 1. At the moment, it looks as if the president's party may hold, or even gain, congressional seats in November.

President Reagan, like Bush, also got off to a quick start, getting his tax-cut plan through Congress early. But a severe recession dogged him in his second year, when his approval ratings dropped into the low 40s, reaching a personal all-time low of 35 at the start of his third year. At the same time, he was at fierce loggerheads with Congress, and had to rescind a hefty portion of his tax cut.

When it comes to the economy, however, this president is again an anomaly, says Wittmann. With first quarter growth registering a surprising 5.8 percent, Bush at present has a tailwind at his back – not a headwind. And while his job approval ratings have dropped, they are still in the 70s – miles above the Reagan valley.

Wittmann's explanation for the Bush anomaly: "The war has really changed the dynamic for this second-year presidency.... It seems that the American people are ultimately judging this president by whether he is successfully winning this war."

AS FOR the Mideast quagmire – that swamp through which the administration must slog if it wants to keep its antiterrorism coalition in place – it is also unique as far as overseas crises go.

Bush's predecessors, including his father, also faced foreign challenges – whether in Panama, Kuwait, or Haiti. But the Arab-Israeli problem has been needling US presidents all the way back to Harry Truman. As long as this president puts in an honest effort, analysts say, he is unlikely to rise or fall on the issue.

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