Five months after starting his second term with high hopes, President Bush is struggling to regain the confidence of Americans concerned about the direction of the Iraq war and the U.S. economy.
With his job approval rating slumping to 42 percent in a poll by The New York Times and CBS News, down from 51 percent in the aftermath of the November election, Bush has begun an effort to refocus his presidency — a move welcomed by anxious Republicans.
“I think Bush is in the process of regaining his footing, and focusing on real dinner-table issues,” Republican consultant Scott Reed said.
Bush began his second term in January with an ambitious plan to overhaul the Social Security retirement program but it has failed to gain traction on Capitol Hill and many Americans are skeptical. The preoccupation over Social Security figured in the delay of his promised attempt to overhaul the tax code.
At the same time, he got caught up — some Republicans say sidetracked — in a battle on Capitol Hill over whether a brain-damaged Florida woman, Terri Schiavo, should be kept alive.
Then came a fight in the Senate over arcane rules about filibusters involving Bush’s judicial nominees, and a protracted fight over his nominee to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton.
Some Republicans believe those issues proved to be a distraction from Bush’s agenda and showed he was out of touch.
The Iraqi insurgency also intensified, with increasingly brazen suicide bomb attacks despite Vice President Dick Cheney’s bold assertion the rebellion was in its “last throes.” At home, soaring gasoline prices took a bigger bite out of household budgets.
The White House is now scrambling to right the ship.
“In the weeks ahead, I will continue to focus on ways to ensure that our government takes the side of working families, and that America prevails in the war on terror,” Bush said in his weekly radio address on Saturday.
Republican strategists believe while it is too early to worry about the fallout on the 2006 midterm elections, when the party’s control of both houses of Congress will be tested, it is important for Bush to reassure Americans he is paying attention to their concerns.
“It’s a minor problem,” said Republican consultant Charlie Black. “But it would help to have the job approval over 50 percent. It helps on the Hill to give your people confidence and let the Democrats think twice before they oppose you.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill welcomed the White House’s announcement Bush would “sharpen his focus” on Iraq and the economy.
“We believe that that is the best approach, to talk about family pocketbook issues and refocus our message on why we have troops in Iraq,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
TOUGH TASK ON IRAQ
Bush has a particularly tough task when it comes to Iraq amid a rising death toll and questions by Democrats about whether U.S. intelligence had been “fixed” around a policy that would inevitably lead to war with Iraq.
He will play host to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Friday and give a speech on Iraq on June 28 to mark the one-year anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraqis.
The theme will be to reassure Americans the war has been worth it and to urge patience in the goal of getting Iraqis trained sufficiently to allow U.S. troops to come home.
The Times/CBS poll said only 37 percent approved of Bush’s handling of Iraq, down from 45 percent in February, while 51 percent thought the United States should have stayed out of Iraq, a slight drop from findings throughout the spring.
A bipartisan resolution introduced in the House of Representatives would begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by October 2006, a proposal rejected by the White House and unlikely to be approved, but still a sign of trouble for Bush.
“We need a plan — not open-ended questions,” said the Democratic House leader, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi. “This is for the sake of our mission in Iraq and the soldiers that so nobly fight for it.”
Bush’s battle to convince Americans the economy is cruising along fine also faces obstacles. While unemployment is a relatively low 5.1 percent, the stock market has been in the doldrums and gasoline prices are pinching wallets.
Reed said, “Bush’s standing can and will recover by using the bully pulpit effectively, which only one end of Pennsylvania Avenue can truly utilize.”
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