Bush loses some luster on credibility

With the president struggling on issues such as Iraq and Social Security, controversy over Rove adds to PR challenge.

When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he sought to contrast himself implicitly with President Clinton, promising to restore "honor and integrity" to the White House. The argument seemed to work.

Now, in the public's view, President Bush is sliding into negative territory on that score. For the first time in his presidency, more Americans give Bush a low rating (45 percent) on being "honest and straightforward" than give him a high rating (41 percent), according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

It's not just the recent revelations about top aide Karl Rove - now known to be involved in the imbroglio over the outing of a CIA operative - that have hurt Bush. A range of issues are dampening the president's numbers, from his as-yet-unsuccessful attempt to sell partial privatization of Social Security to increasing public doubts over the decision to go to war in Iraq, says one of the pollsters who conducted the survey.

"We really didn't ask about Rove," says Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who ran the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "It's sort of a sense that nothing's going right, and that a lot of his basic tenets that he put out for the second term are coming up a cropper."

Republican analysts don't disagree.

"From a public opinion standpoint, the administration's in a slump," says Charles Black, a Washington lawyer and GOP adviser. "Some accomplishments will help break the slump: If we can get an energy bill and get it signed, get a highway bill and get it signed, if we continue to have a good economy."

On the last point, Mr. Black adds, "it's weird, because the economy is good, but a lot of people don't think it is."

Black also sees press coverage of the outed CIA agent, Valerie Plame, dying down until the special prosecutor releases his report. The grand jury hearing testimony on the case is empaneled until October.

Focus on key adviser Rove

For now, though, intense focus on the Plame investigation - including the role of Bush's top adviser, Mr. Rove - continues to dominate political conversation. On CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, an administration critic and Ms. Plame's husband, decried the partisan turn in public discourse. "They [Republicans] have tried to make this partisan," he said. "It is not partisan, it is an issue of national security."

Because the Plame affair is rooted in the issue of questionable intelligence leading to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the emerging details on Plame's exposure have led to renewed public focus on the runup to the war - a reminder that, in fact, no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. That point goes to the heart of questions about Bush's truthfulness, say Democrats.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, national GOP chair Ken Mehlman deflected questions about Rove by expressing confidence in the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, and attacking the honesty of Ambassador Wilson.

Based on what is now known - that Rove spoke to reporters, including Robert Novak, the author of the original column at issue, about Wilson's wife - Bush's most valuable aide will remain under a cloud unless or until he is cleared by Mr. Fitzgerald. Rove's involvement also provides a peg for the press to review his career as a bare-knuckled political operative known to work with devastating effect.

Even now, Rovian techniques are at play: Instead of cowering before Wilson, Republicans are going after him.

For Bush, the promise to fire anyone from his administration involved in leaking the name of a covert agent now looms large. Short of an indictment of Rove, analysts expect him to stay in the White House - in part, because Bush is loyal and also because Rove is so central to this presidency, politically and on policy matters.

But keeping Rove after making that promise puts Bush in the kind of awkward, word-parsing spot that famously caught his predecessor. Just as Clinton mused aloud on the meaning of the word "is," so Bush could be caught over the meaning of "leak." If Rove was not the original leaker, but instead just confirmed classified information to a reporter, is that a leak?

Challenges ahead for Bush

And more broadly, can Bush reverse his slide in public trust?

"That's very event-dependent," says political scientist Bruce Buchanan of the University of Texas, Austin. "It's hard to predict with confidence that he can recover."

Relevant factors include whether Rove or someone else from the administration is indicted; how the Iraq war goes; whether the president is successful in getting initiatives through Congress; whether he can avoid a catfight over his forthcoming Supreme Court nomination.

One area of solace for Bush is that public approval of Congress (28 percent) is even lower than his own job approval rating of 46 percent in the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. But if public disgust with all of Washington continues or escalates, that could hurt his allies in Congress in the next election, making it even more difficult to make major accomplishments in the final two years of his presidency.

Adam Karlin contributed to this report.

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