Tough second-term factors call for lighter Bush touch
WASHINGTON — Through the first four-plus years of his presidency, George W. Bush's approach to getting things done has not been complicated. He's determined what he wants and then single-mindedly pursued it until he wins it. He has simply worn the other side down.
In his first term, this approach worked to great effect. Love Mr. Bush's policies or hate them, you can't deny he got most or all of what he wanted in those first four years. From tax policy to education policy to Iraq, he scored major victories.
Upon his reelection, people in this town wondered what he'd do for an encore. He was to be "Bush unshackled." Free of the burden of seeking another term, he could use his force-of-will approach to pursue the things he really wanted without concern for repercussions, and in the process remake the federal government.
Now, five months in, the White House and its supporters are beginning to wonder what's happened to that script. Social Security reform is stalled. The Senate is beginning to buck the president on the energy bill. The House has challenged him on limiting stem-cell research. And his poll numbers have dipped, particularly on his handling of Iraq.
Welcome to the reality of the second term. It's no secret that second terms are hard. Many a victory lap has turned into an ugly pileup. Just look at recent history. Clinton had Lewinsky. Reagan had Iran-contra. Nixon resigned in disgrace. And LBJ saw Vietnam run him from office.
But the hope among the Bushites was that W. would be different. After winning only the electoral vote in 2000, he won the popular vote by 3 million in 2004. And voters seemed to embrace his "my way or else" approach - even those who didn't agree with him said they appreciated how he went after what he wanted.
The hope in the White House, of course, is that any problems the president is experiencing are short term. Things change, and by the end of the summer or the beginning of the fall everything might look better. But three obstacles stand in Bush's way right now, and on his current course there's little he can do to surmount them.
First, there's the agenda itself. Those first-term successes were nice for the president, but he wasn't tackling particularly tough issues. It's rarely difficult to push a tax cut through Congress (though we now may be at a rare point when it is) and education reform is the kind of thing that politicians back when money is promised, as it was with No Child Left Behind. Social Security is a different animal altogether. It's the kind of issue that can kill an agenda because of the emotions it stirs and the interest groups involved - yes, AARP.
Second, the president is running into a problem all second-term pols face. He's an incumbent now, which means he's no longer an outsider, he's a politician - perhaps the only group the public holds in lower esteem than journalists. His supporters still love him, of course. And his detractors still hate him. But it's that middle group, the one that's critical to getting things done, that sees him differently now. For them, some of the bloom is off the rose - as it would be with any incumbent.
And third, and perhaps most important, it doesn't really matter if the president is "unshackled" because nearly everyone else is seeking reelection and is still shackled - very tightly. They still have to answer to their constituents and face voters in 18 months, and they aren't keen on taking on issues that make enemies. This reality combines with Bush's first problem (the tough agenda) to create an extremely bumpy road.
If that's not enough, consider the issue hanging over everything else, Iraq. It is highly unlikely that in the next several months the country will suddenly become a shining symbol of democracy. That'll take years - probably long after Bush leaves office - if it happens at all.
So what's the president to do? It may be time for a different tack with Congress - a second act. It may be time to step into the congressional pool and help craft compromises where necessary. Put forward the easier things first and put off the tough debates. He needs an issue that the public can support.
This, of course, flies completely in the face of how things are done at the White House, where they say they don't read polls and where the dogged pursuit of objectives is the primary strategy. But it may be worth considering a new approach. If not, it's hard to see how the president's second term will improve.
• Dante Chinni, a Washington-based journalist, writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.