- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

This week, the news media gave President Bush his first-quarter report card, and his grades were not so hot. Of course, he was blamed for some things beyond his control and received little or no credit for things that are going right for him.

Examples of such media criticism include The Washington Post headline: "Crises Strain Bush's Policies." Notably, they appeared about the same time that the Democrats were escalating their attacks on the White House. What a coincidence.

Foreign policy, namely the Middle East, dominates Mr. Bush's report card. His politically precarious balancing act between strong support for Israel in its life-and-death struggle against the Palestinian terrorists and his efforts to push Yasser Arafat into the peace process does not get a passing score from these critics.

Mr. Bush has received especially poor grades from some of his conservative allies who say his Middle East policy is confusing and incoherent, though most of the critics in that corner are columnists and TV commentators. "They are paid to stir things up," a White House adviser told me.

Yet there is little evidence outside the Washington Beltway that such criticism is reflected at the grassroots.

When Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, asked 800 registered voters last week what they thought of Mr. Bush's "handling of the situation in the Middle East," a hefty 72 percent approved of his performance.

A series of interviews I conducted with Jewish-American leaders here showed that Jewish voters by and large support his policies toward the region and think Secretary of State Colin L. Powell handled things well during his 10-day trip to the Middle East.

"Powell's trying to find a path out of the crisis, hoping he can find a diplomatic solution that can lead us back to a political process," said Jason Isaacson, director of the American Jewish Committee. "That's an honorable objective, and the Jewish community overwhelmingly supports that.

"Clearly there have been some concerns expressed by some in the Jewish community, which is not monolithic. But the overwhelming majority of American Jews, I am convinced, know Bush to be rock solid in his support of Israel."

"It is not lost on this community that President Sharon has visited the White House more than any other leader outside of Mexican President Vincente Fox," said a senior official at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The pessimistic spin from the news media when Mr. Powell returned from his trip was that he had failed to persuade Ariel Sharon to pull out of occupied areas in the West Bank. But a few days later the troop pullback began after a sweeping roundup of Palestinian terrorists by the Israeli army.

"The fighting has gone down. There is talk of a regional meeting. In a lot of ways, there was success in this trip," the AIPAC official told me.

Elsewhere, Mr. Bush is accused of not having a "coherent strategy" to deal with a rash of foreign policy crises around the globe. Iraq's Saddam Hussein continues to arm for war and is trying to turn his oil embargo into a weapon against the United States. The brief military coup against leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sent oil prices soaring. And Europe remains as cranky as ever about U.S. policies, especially Mr. Bush's tariff hikes on steel imports, and is threatening retaliation.

Yet the administration continues to build its case for a "regime change" in Iraq and is making war plans to do that. The move to topple Mr. Chavez, which has U.S. fingerprints all over it, was botched, but it has given the free-market forces there a new rallying cry and a new leader, Carlos Molina, who led the ill-fated coup.

Meanwhile, the Democrats, unable to craft an agenda of their own, have been beating up Mr. Bush's agenda in the Senate.

They killed his proposal to tap into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's (ANWR) oil reserves, while Iraq and Venezuela were cutting oil production and pushing gas prices up here at home. (ANWR covers 19 million acres, while the proposed drilling area is only 2,000 acres, about the size of a large airport).

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, has kept Mr. Bush's trade expansion on the back burner. He has shelved the House-passed bill to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Mr. Bush's judicial nominees have slowed to a snail's pace. The president's plan to let illegal immigrants apply for citizenship is dead.

There is a general feeling that the president has not pushed as hard as he could for some of these things on his agenda. But with a Senate majority being redefined by the Daschle Democrats as 60 votes, the White House isn't willing to use up its remaining political capital on lost causes. The goal now is to change the Senate.

Mr. Bush and the Republicans are betting that they have one huge political weapon that trumps everything else the Democrats can throw at them a resurgent economy. Ask voters what concerns them most, and the economy and jobs top the list. This is where Mr. Bush's grades shine.

"The American economy of 2002 is a remarkable sight to behold," declares this month's issue of Fortune magazine. The economy is growing faster than anyone predicted. Real after-tax personal incomes are up. Productivity is rising at a pace not seen since the 1960s. Even 5.7 percent unemployment, while still too high, is the envy of most of the world's economies.

These growth numbers are only going to get better as the election year progresses. And best of all, there is nothing that the Senate's obstructionists can do to stop it.

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for the The Washington Times and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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