WASHINGTON -- President Bush's troubled re-election effort is facing yet another handicap: He's in danger of losing his number one scapegoat -- Congress.
Amid growing signs that voters are tired of the Washington blame game, Bush advisers are busy revising a major theme of his campaign by turning down the volume on the Congress-bashing.
Bush campaign aides fear that if the president goes too far in blaming Congress for the nation's problems, he may wind up hurting himself. In this viciously anti-establishment election year, voters clearly don't like Congress. But they aren't about to let the president get away with avoiding responsibility for the long-running stalemate in Washington.
"People want the man at the top to have answers, to get something done," said Vince Breglio, a Republican pollster. "They don't want to hear him say, 'I can't get something done because of those other guys.' "
This view has become increasingly apparent not only in surveys of public attitudes about the partisan gridlock in the nation's capital but also in attitudes toward Mr. Bush himself.
After months of beating on Congress for refusing to adopt his economic plan, Mr. Bush's job approval rating hit a low last week of 30 percent in a CNN poll. In mid-June, only 16 percent of those surveyed for the New York Times thought Mr. Bush was doing a good job on the economy.
Those negative attitudes have direct political impact, as shown by a new poll released yesterday in California, where the recession is still having some of its most painful effects.
The survey, by the Field organization, showed Mr. Bush trailing Democratic nominee Bill Clinton by a record 34 points. Such lopsided numbers are an early sign that the Bush campaign may be forced to concede the nation's most populous state, despite California's tradition of supporting Republican presidents and the fact that it represents fully one-fifth of the electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
"People generally do not like the president blaming Congress," said Charles Black, a senior adviser to the Bush campaign, referring to results of internal polling and discussions with groups of voters assembled by the campaign.
"They don't like gridlock, but they also don't like partisan bickering," he added.
"We have a lot of traffic and interference to get through to get our message across."
Mr. Bush has made clear that he would like to fashion himself after the model of Harry S. Truman, the Democratic president who couldn't get a Republican Congress to consider his reform proposals in the summer of 1948 and who ran a successful "Give 'em hell" re-election campaign that fall.
"There was this battle against a 'do-nothing Congress' -- now wait, that's Truman speaking," Mr. Bush quipped to a White House audience Tuesday night, "and a wonderful come-from-behind victory. Nothing like a story with a happy ending."
But as the president's own new-found delicacy in attributing the epithet to Truman indicates, there is growing alarm in the White House that too much name-calling without a clear debate on the issues can do the president more harm than good.
"He has to keep it on a higher plane," said former Agriculture Secretary and Republican Party Chairman Clayton K. Yeutter, who is now serving as the president's top domestic policy adviser.
"He has to make arguments based on substance."
Thus, the administration is resisting appeals from some conservative supporters and seems ready to sign onto a compromise deal with congressional Democrats to push through new package of tax incentives that would incorporate most of Mr. Bush's original proposals, though not its centerpiece of a cut in the tax on capital gains.
"Our view is that we've got to make one more good-faith effort to get this package enacted into law," Mr. Yeutter said. "That's what the American people expect of the president of the United States -- to work in a productive manner with the Congress.
"If that's not successful, the attempt will at least be fresh on people's minds in the fall," he added.
This is a major revision in a Congress-bashing crusade that began last October when Mr. Bush suddenly leaped on legislators while the public was still angry over their handling of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings. The president called Congress "a privileged class of rulers" who had "stunned and repulsed" the nation.
The latest gesture toward cooperation also represents a significant course correction since Mr. Bush first offered his economic plan to Congress in January with a challenge that the Democrats pass it intact by March 20 or face the political consequences.
They made the deadline, but included a tax increase that Mr. Bush vetoed with another blistering attack.
Although Bush advisers had expected this standoff to give the president a resonant campaign issue, it appears to have hurt more than helped.
"The gridlock argument can work against you," observed Frank Donatelli, a Republican consultant who advises the White House. "People think, 'There he goes trying to blame someone else.' "
Even so, there is no thought in the White House of totally abandoning the tactic of running against Congress.
It remains one of the central elements of Mr. Bush's campaign.
"Because of its unpopularity, Congress is a perfect foil for the president.
"If he does direct battle with them, the higher the profile, the better. He simply can't blame them for his problems."
The White House is contemplating a series of veto confrontations with Congress this fall if the Democrats send Mr. Bush appropriations bills on which he can make political points.
But the president himself may have to keep his tone somewhat milder than the salty Harry Truman.
Quoting the former president Tuesday night, Mr. Bush said: "I just told the truth, and they thought it was hell."