- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

Karl Rove yesterday said the continuing war in Iraq rather than President Bush’s actions on federal spending, immigration and Social Security is driving the president’s job-approval ratings to record lows, but that will change by November.

“The war looms over everything, there’s no doubt about it,” the White House chief political strategist said in fielding questions from reporters after his speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank with close ties to the Bush administration.

The public continues to give Mr. Bush high personal approval ratings, but assessments of his job performance are low. The latest Harris-Wall Street Journal poll showed 29 percent of Americans approved of the president’s performance.

Mr. Rove, 55, said the reason is that the war has put voters in a “sour” mood. The Iraq situation, he said, is distracting public attention from the robust 4.8 percent annual growth rate of the economy, an unemployment rate of 4.7 percent, the creation of 5.2 million jobs since August 2003 and the strong performance of the stock markets.

Citing numbers from a recent study, Mr. Rove said, “Republicans will have 10 seats more after the fall election that they would otherwise have because of people’s confidence about their own circumstances and the economy that they feel and see.”

Many state Republican Party chairmen, fearing the loss of leadership of one or both houses of Congress, voiced concerns of the conservative base at a meeting in Colorado earlier this month. Conservative approval of the president has soured because of his handling of federal spending, immigration, government growth and the war in Iraq.

Mr. Rove yesterday said those concerns are misplaced because the “unreported achievement” is that, “under this president, federal spending as a percentage of the economy is lower than that under four of the last five presidents.”

Although many conservatives have criticized Mr. Bush for putting his signature on pork-packed measures passed by the Republican-controlled Congress, Mr. Rove said the president has kept Congress in line on spending. Last year, Mr. Rove said, the president issued at least 39 veto threats “on six major spending bills.”

“Congress responded,” Mr. Rove said, “by restraining spending to the levels proposed in the president’s budget. To put it mildly, the impact of the president’s veto messages have been an unreported achievement.”

Mr. Rove has been hearing from Republican officials from across the country that the party’s rank-and-file voters are rebelling over federal spending and may sit out the November elections. He argued yesterday that Mr. Bush in fact has reduced the growth of non-security discretionary spending every year he has been in office.

“In the final year of the previous administration, non-security discretionary spending grew by 15 percent,” Mr. Rove said. “President Bush worked with Congress to cut that figure, reducing non-security discretionary spending growth to 6 percent” in 2002, and by an additional percentage point in successive years through last year.

In this fiscal year, for the first time since the Reagan administration, Mr. Bush “worked with Congress to actually cut non-security discretionary spending from the previous years’ levels … and hold growth and total discretionary spending below the rate of inflation.”

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