- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

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 five months after President Bush’s re-election, he’s keeping a happy face, but quietly looking for rabbits.

Mr. Bush earned political capital in November and intends to spend it, he told reporters at the beginning of his second term. Three months after his second inauguration, polls show his approval ratings and presumably his political capital have evaporated, almost as quickly as the budget surplus he inherited at the beginning of his first term.

Although Mr. Bush received 51 percent of the vote in November, the job he’s doing is approved by only 44 percent in a poll released last week by the Associated Press and Ipsos-Public Affairs. Fifty-four percent disapproved.

And if, by now, you’re warming your fingers to send me a fresh “Bush won; get over it” message, save your fingertips. Mr. Bush’s dip appears not to have come from liberals, Democratic partisans, or chronic Bush-haters.

It appears to come from a mixture of loyal Republicans and disenchanted independents who are less than enthused about some of his domestic policy moves. Many folks who voted for Mr. Bush as a blow against “Hollywood immorality” and same-sex “marriage” apparently are not pleased to discover they also were voting for private retirement accounts, loosened immigration enforcement and congressional intrusion into a family’s private and painful right-to-die dispute.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found 32 percent of Republicans opposed Mr. Bush’s proposal to let workers invest part of their payroll taxes in the stock market. Half of Republicans and 55 percent of independents opposed his proposal to grant legal status to some illegal immigrants already in the United States.

Like most of the country, 39 percent of Republicans said the court-ordered removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was correct, despite emergency efforts by Mr. Bush and Congress to have it reinserted. Forty-eight percent said it was wrong.

Though 87 percent of his fellow Republicans approved of his job performance overall, about 18 percent said they lost respect for Mr. Bush after he butted into the Schiavo family dispute. But he got off easy compared to Congress, for which 41 percent of Republicans said they lost respect.

Iraq, the war on terrorism and making Americans feel safer were central themes of the 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. On the front burner are the bread-and-butter issues that touch Americans close to home and in their pocketbooks.

But Mr. Bush gets off easy in recent polls compared to that other perennial target of abuse, Congress. Approvals for the Republican-led Congress in the AP-Ipsos Poll dropped to a measly 37 percent from 41 percent in January. Congressional Democrats found little to gloat about as their ratings were about the same as those of the Republicans.

Backlash makes Congress nervous, which explains Mr. Bush’s continuing road trips to sell his Social Security plans to the public. His problem: He’s a lame duck. Since he can’t run again, he can spend political capital more freely than Congress can. As most of its members face midterm elections next year and Mr. Bush will be an even lamer lame duck afterward, he needs to get ambitious-yet-controversial ideas like his Social Security proposals passed this year, while they have a chance.

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

Sooner or later, Democrats must produce some new, bold leadership, if they’re to reverse their losing election trends. For now, as Mr. Bush tries to salvage his legacy, congressional Democrats seem to follow the old Machiavellian adage: Never interrupt your enemy while he is destroying himself.

Second terms can be humbling. Yet, when asked about his low polls, the president remained characteristically upbeat. “You can pretty much find out what you want in polls,” he said. Perhaps. But, as Sandburg might ask, can he find some rabbits?

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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