Bush agenda faces hurdles

NSA controversy, setbacks in Congress may show cracks in approval, influence



WASHINGTON -- The furor over the National Security Agency's domestic spying program threatens to impede President Bush's momentum, just as he was working his way back from the lowest popularity rating of his presidency.

Criticism of Bush's decision to permit warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens coincided with a series of setbacks as Congress wrapped up its work for the year last week. Together, they suggested that the president no longer has the sway he once possessed, even within his party.

Revelations about the NSA operation, which critics in both parties have called presidential overreaching, are the most recent difficulties that analysts say Bush will have to overcome to bounce back in 2006.

A debate over the legality of Bush's order to the NSA, which will resume when Congress returns after the holidays, comes as the president was beginning to see the benefits of his intensive public relations effort on the Iraq war.

He has conceded mistakes and acknowledged dissent over his policies, accepted responsibility for the unexpectedly bloody conflict, and hinted at more troop withdrawals to come. In the process, Bush stopped the steady slide in his approval ratings, analysts said, laying the groundwork for a potential comeback early next year.

Rising popularity could improve the prospects for Bush's policy agenda in Congress. Because 2006 is an election year, it could help Republicans maintain their majorities on Capitol Hill. Historically, presidential approval ratings are closely linked to the performance of the president's party in midterm elections.

On defensive

The NSA revelations may have threatened Bush's progress, however, and put him back on the defensive, said Frank Newport, editor of the Gallup Poll. He said it was too early to determine whether, or how deeply, the issue might have affected the president's standing.

"A president who's beleaguered certainly has less credibility, both with members of his own party and the other party, and much less influence. Bush has been no different," Newport said.

Many in Congress have expressed concern over the secret eavesdropping program - operated without court approval for the wiretaps. Some liberals have called for Bush's impeachment. Analysts say the uproar over the NSA operation could sour the public on the president.

"People get a kind of broad impression of whether things are going well or poorly for the president, and this contributes to the sense that he is in real trouble," said Fred I. Greenstein, a specialist in the presidency at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. "That makes it more likely that they'll line up against him."

Senior aides hope the NSA revelations will ultimately help the president by reminding the public of the anxiety that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, and showing that he has aggressively pursued terrorists.

Vice President Dick Cheney suggested last week that Americans might even be grateful to hear of the program's existence. He said the public would "understand and appreciate what we're doing and why we're doing it. You know, it's not an accident that we haven't been hit in four years."

Bush's "standing with the public will be enormously enhanced by this, when the president makes it clear that he is doing everything he can to protect the American people against terrorist threats and attacks," said former Republican Rep. Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania, a lobbyist with close ties with lawmakers. "Washington will argue about the nuances of his policy, but the public will be very much in support of his actions."

Bush's vigorous defense of the NSA surveillance, which he said targets the international communications of people with suspected links to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, has allowed the president to return to the bellicose themes he sounded in the wake of the 2001 attacks, when his popularity soared. Despite doubts about Bush's credibility reflected in recent opinion surveys, polling suggests that the public is swayed by such dire rhetoric; after his recent campaign discussing the war in Iraq, Bush's approval ratings on handling terrorism have rebounded and are among his greatest strengths.

"It reminds again of the president's standing in the first term, when those who liked him liked him for being tough and unyielding and aggressive in the war on terror, and those who didn't like him thought he was overreaching and trying to scare people," said John C. Fortier, a public opinion specialist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Regaining momentum

This time, though, Bush must contend with a restive Congress and figure out a way to regain momentum he lost in a string of defeats this year, including the implosion of his sweeping Social Security plan and, most recently, his failed effort to weaken a ban on torturing suspected terrorists, the demise of his latest attempt to open the Arctic plain to oil exploration, and Congress' refusal - at least for now - to make the USA Patriot Act permanent.

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