A humbling second term

April 15, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - A politician should have three hats, the poet Carl Sandburg once said: "One for throwing into the ring, one for talking through, and one for pulling rabbits out of if elected." Judging by the polls three months after President Bush's inauguration, he is keeping a happy face, but quietly looking for rabbits.

As he celebrated his re-election in November, Mr. Bush told reporters that he earned political capital and he intended to spend it. But polls are showing that Mr. Bush's approval ratings and presumably his political capital have evaporated.

In a poll released last week by the Associated Press and Ipsos-Public Affairs, only 44 percent of Americans approved of the job Mr. Bush is doing, while 54 percent disapproved.

Mr. Bush's dip appears to be coming from loyal Republicans and disenchanted independents who are less than enthusiastic about his domestic agenda. A lot of folks who voted for Mr. Bush as a statement against "Hollywood immorality" and "gay marriage" apparently are not pleased to discover they also were voting for private retirement accounts, relaxed immigration enforcement and congressional intrusion into a family's painful right-to-die dispute.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released the same day as the AP poll found that 32 percent of Republicans opposed Mr. Bush's proposal to let workers invest part of their payroll taxes in the stock markets.

Half of Republicans and 55 percent of independents opposed the president's proposal to grant legal status to some illegal immigrants residing in the United States.

Like most of the country, 39 percent of Republicans said that the court-ordered removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was the right thing to do, despite emergency efforts by Mr. Bush and Congress to have it reinserted, while 48 percent said it was wrong.

Iraq, the war on terrorism and making Americans feel safer were central themes of the 2004 presidential campaign, but recent hard-won successes in the long, painful process of democratizing Iraq actually may have nudged the war and other foreign-policy issues to the back burner in many minds.

Approvals for the Republican-led Congress in the AP-Ipsos poll dropped to a measly 37 percent, down from 41 percent in January. Congressional Democrats found little to gloat about as their approval ratings were about the same as Republicans'.

Backlash makes Congress nervous, which explains Mr. Bush's continuing road trips across America to sell his Social Security plans. His problem? He's a lame duck. As most members of Congress will face midterm elections next year, Mr. Bush needs to get ambitious yet controversial ideas, such as his Social Security proposals, passed this year.

Regarding Mr. Bush's proposed Social Security reforms, Democrats reasonably respond that the looming Social Security crisis is decades away, if then, while the growing woes of Medicare and Medicaid are headed toward a financial train wreck in the next few years. It's an argument they appear to be winning.

Democrats will have to produce some bold leadership if they're going to reverse their losing streak in elections.

For now, as Mr. Bush tries to salvage his legacy, congressional Democrats seem to be following the old Machiavellian adage: Never interrupt your enemy while he is destroying himself.

Second terms can be humbling.

Yet when he was asked about his low poll numbers, the president stayed characteristically upbeat. "You can pretty much find out what you want in polls," he said.

Perhaps. But, as Mr. Sandburg might wonder, can he find some rabbits?

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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