So Much for ‘Political Capital’

On the frigid January day when President Bush took the oath to serve a second four-year term as the world’s most powerful individual, he told lawmakers at a traditional Capitol luncheon that he was developing a long agenda and expressed a willingness to work “with members of both houses and both parties to achieve that job.”

“I’m looking forward to putting my heart and soul into this job for four more years,” he told those gathered in Statuary Hall. “Together, we can make this great nation of ours a safer place, and a freer place, and a better place for all our fellow citizens.”

Now with Friday marking the first 100 days of his second term, Bush has seen some progress in the war in Iraq, including the creation of a democratic government there, and has realized a handful of legislative goals. The nation has been free of another terrorist attack, and the economy remains steady if not outstanding.

But the administration is limping past the first guidepost looking to generate some momentum, and Bush is toiling to make sure a lame-duck status doesn’t overtake him prematurely.

Not surprisingly, the first 100 days of Bush’s second term differ markedly from the first 100 days of his initial term, when, despite the controversy surrounding his election, the president was still basking in the honeymoon phase.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted during the first 100 days of his first term, April 19-22, 2001, showed 63 percent approved of Bush’s handling of his job as president, with only 32 percent voicing disapproval. When the same polling firm posed that question to the public April 21-24, 2005, only 47 percent approved of the way Bush is handling his job, and 50 percent disapproved.

Bush asserts that he infrequently studies polls and won’t permit them to affect his decisions. But a 16 percent drop in public support, with fewer than half maintaining the president is performing acceptably, renders the task at hand more difficult.

During the first 100 days of his first term, Bush vowed to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. And he did _ getting together with Democrats like Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, the administration’s first major legislative accomplishment. Bush worked with another Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, on his faith-based initiative and induced a number of Democrats to support his tax cuts.

At the outset of his second term, Bush expressed a desire to recapture a degree of bipartisanship. In his Jan. 20 inaugural address, the president acknowledged that the nation has “known divisions, which must be healed to move forward in great purposes _ and I will strive in good faith to heal them.”

But he hasn’t reached that goal _ at least during the first 100 days of his second term. Instead, he has found himself engaged in an all-out political war with Democrats with two major issues _ overhauling Social Security and confirmation of judicial appointments _ dominating his time.

On Social Security, Bush laid out an aggressive agenda, planning a tour of “60 stops in 60 days” to promote his package that would permit younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private accounts, with the money invested in government-approved plans.

Since beginning the tour shortly after delivering the State of the Union address in February, Bush has visited 23 states, engaging in what the administration calls town-hall meetings where carefully selected audience members question the president about Social Security. That has led Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada to declare that the president “only talks to audiences who already agree with him.”

With the tour drawing to a close, the results, at least where the president is concerned, have been disappointing. The ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted on Jan. 12-16 _ shortly before Bush took his second oath of office _ found that 38 percent approved of the way he was handling Social Security. But in the April 21-24 survey, that number had dropped to 31 percent.

The administration’s answer was to extend the tour.

“Every time the president opens his mouth about his plan to privatize Social Security, support for private accounts declines,” said Brad Woodhouse, communications director for Americans United to Protect Social Security. “If the president extends his privatization tour to the end of the year there may not be a single American left who supports his plan.”

The battle over judicial confirmations also may prove politically costly.

The Senate has approved 206 of the 216 federal judges the president has nominated. The remaining 10, considered by Democrats to be outside the mainstream, have been waylaid by filibusters _ a parliamentary maneuver that essentially requires nominees to receive the support of 60 lawmakers in the 100-member Senate as opposed to a simple majority.

Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, for his part, is threatening to invoke what’s known as the “nuclear option” _ a rules change that would make it much harder to stop a judicial nomination. Bush expressed support for taking that route. Reid threatened to “shut down the Senate” if the GOP proceeds, endangering several administration initiatives, including the president’s energy policy.

The move is not popular. The ABC News/Washington Post April poll finds that nearly half of Americans feel the Democrats are right to block the Bush nominations.

Those aren’t the only issues that have tripped up the president in the first 100 days. The administration got involved in the Terry Schiavo controversy, with the president returning to Washington from his Crawford, Texas, ranch on March 20 to sign legislation setting up an additional federal review of the case involving the brain-damaged Florida woman, whose husband sought to remove her feeding tube.

Still, the federal courts refused to intervene. Schiavo later died. Polls, meanwhile, showed that the public disapproved of the government’s involvement in such a personal matter.

The second term also has been plagued by high gas prices, with the price of a gallon of gas rising above $2 nationwide over the past few weeks, and ethics concerns about House Republican leader Tom DeLay, a fellow Texan, whose controversy is having an impact on all Republicans, including the president.

Despite the litany of problems, the president also has quietly experienced a number of victories. Bush signed a bankruptcy-reform bill he supported, along with legislation forcing class-action suits into federal courts, part of his tort-reform initiative. And the Senate, for the first time, adopted a budget bill that could open the door to oil exploration in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, something the president has sought for more than three years.

Bush also appears to be sticking closer to Washington.

During the first 100 days of his first term, the president spent most weekends at Camp David, away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. Thus far this year, he has spent most weekends in Washington, frequently heading to a Secret Service training center in Maryland to ride his bicycle _ bad knees prohibit his usual running regimen _ and attending Sunday services at St. John’s Episcopal Church, about a block from the White House.

The president has, of late, taken more trips to his Prairie Chapel Ranch outside of Crawford, spending a week there in March and a couple of recent weekends, entertaining Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Bush has expressed pleasure, even to the news media, about the abundance of bluebonnets that have covered the landscape this year.

(E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)