- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

President Bush was so eager to be done with 2006 that he lopped off the final 10 days in his year-end press conference last week, answering one question as if it were already 2007 and he were already dealing with the new Democratic Congress.

The year that saw his poll approval ratings fall to new lows, saw Congress back him off his veto threat on the Dubai ports deal and forced him to issue his first veto, on stem-cell research, ended with Democrats’ winning outright control of Congress.

But he also won confirmation of a second justice to the Supreme Court and won congressional approval of detention and military trials for detainees in the war on terror.

Just as important, the United States helped Britain foil another major terrorist plot to hijack airplanes this past summer, and the fifth full year since September 11 is about to expire without another successful terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

At the same time, though, the situation in Iraq deteriorated, and the administration made only halting progress in using diplomacy to try to contain Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs.

Overall, it was a year of steps forward followed almost always by steps back, and vice versa, particularly on domestic matters:

• On immigration, the president deployed thousands of National Guard troops to the border and signed the Secure Fence Act to build about 700 miles of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, but his effort to win a broader immigration bill that included citizenship rights for most illegal aliens was stymied.

• On trade, the administration won passage of several smaller free-trade agreements — with Bahrain and Oman — but saw the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks break down over the summer.

• The Supreme Court ruled Mr. Bush did not have the unilateral authority to establish military commissions to try detainees in the war on terror, but in an election-season campaign-style push, the president wrangled the authority from Congress.

James Pfiffner, a professor at George Mason University who studies the presidency, said that represented a major victory for Mr. Bush and for the executive branch.

“No previous president has sought this type of power from Congress,” Mr. Pfiffner said. “President Bush won another battle for executive power. Future court challenges may undermine part of this law, but in the meantime, President Bush can push his discretion to the limits with congressional approval.”

Mr. Pfiffner said the congressional elections, in which the president’s party lost control of both chambers and most of the candidates Mr. Bush campaigned for in the final days went down to defeat, is the biggest political setback for the president.

Looking back during his year-end press conference, Mr. Bush acknowledged it was “a difficult year for our troops and the Iraqi people,” but said here at home the economy “continues to post strong gains.”

Asked to look at his legacy, Mr. Bush did not find anything in 2006, and had to reach further back in his tenure, choosing to highlight 2003’s overhaul of Medicare, 2001’s No Child Left Behind education bill and the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.

Mr. Bush had ended 2005 with approval ratings at about 45 percent, and with one December 2005 poll even putting him at the 50 percent mark.

And the new year began with some good news for the president when the Senate voted to confirm federal Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.

But as 2006 went on, he stumbled, losing a battle with his own party in Congress over transferring management of six U.S. ports from a British company to a state-run company from Dubai.

Congress also forced him into his first veto, on a measure to expand federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. That veto was sustained by a vote in the House.

His approval ratings slid steadily toward 30 percent, with just one sustained uptick in September as he went on the offensive to win new tools in the war on terror. That boost ended with the revelation that Republican Rep. Mark Foley of Florida sent sexually explicit messages to a male teen in the House page program.

Administration officials do list a series of accomplishments, including passage of bills to boost port security, preparations for a flu pandemic, increased Pell Grant funding, and renewal of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that governs marine conservation and the fishing industry.

The big-ticket items the administration points to are renewal of the Patriot Act, passage of the Secure Fence Act and the grant of authority for military tribunals for detainees.

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