Bush's Road Gets Rougher

By RICHARD W. STEVENSON

New York Times

June 20, 2005

WASHINGTON, June 19 - Five months after President Bush was sworn in for another four years, his political authority appears to be ebbing, both within his own party, where members of Congress are increasingly if sporadically going their own way, and among Democrats, who have discovered that they pay little or no price for defying him.

In some cases, Mr. Bush is suffering mere political dings that can be patched up, like the votes by the House this past week to buck him on withholding dues to the United Nations and retaining a controversial provision of the USA Patriot Act.

In others, the damage is more than cosmetic, as in the case of stem cell research, an issue on which a good portion of his party is breaking with him. In a few instances - most notably the centerpiece of his second-term agenda, his call to reshape Social Security - he is dangerously close to a fiery wreck that could have lasting consequences for his standing and for the Republican Party.

On Monday, Mr. Bush will face another test of his clout, when the Republican-controlled Senate tries again to overcome Democratic opposition and confirm John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. And with his poll numbers sinking as voters grow more restive about Iraq and the economy, he faces additional big challenges in coming weeks and months, from legislative battles over energy, trade and immigration to the possibility of a divisive Supreme Court confirmation fight.

The cumulative effect of his difficulties in the last few months has been to pierce the sense of dominance that he sought to project after his re-election and to heighten concerns among Republicans in Congress that voters will hold them, as the party in power, responsible for failure to address the issues of most concern to the public.

"The political capital he thought he had has dwindled to very little, and he overstated how much he had to begin with," said Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington.

"Congress is like Wall Street - it operates on fear and greed," Mr. Lichtman said. "The Democrats don't fear him anymore, and they're getting greedy, because they think they can beat him. The attitude you see among Republicans in Congress is, my lifeboat first."

In the last week, Mr. Bush has responded by lashing out at Democrats, casting them as obstructionists, a strategy that carries some risk given that it seems to acknowledge an inability by Republicans to carry out a governing platform. Searching as well for a more positive message, the administration, which has always been reluctant to acknowledge that events are not unfolding precisely as planned, has embarked on a public relations campaign intended to reassure Americans that Mr. Bush is attuned to their concerns.

Mr. Bush has offered nothing new in the way of policy but is instead reiterating his views that the war in Iraq is worth the sacrifices it has demanded and that his approaches on issues like energy and trade are the best way of addressing economic jitters. But his message is being undercut somewhat by the more outspoken mavericks in his own party.

Among them are two potential candidates for Mr. Bush's job: Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who in an interview in the current issue of U.S. News & World Report said the administration's assertions on Iraq were "disconnected from reality," and Senator John McCain of Arizona, who on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday disputed Vice President Dick Cheney's characterization last week of the Iraqi insurgency as being in its last throes.

It is far too early to dismiss Mr. Bush as a lame duck. He remains exceedingly popular among Republicans, he has a skilled and aggressive political team around him, and he has had a way in the past of teasing full or partial victories from dire-looking situations. Even if he has to wheel and deal, he stands a good chance of signing an energy policy bill and a trade agreement with Central American nations this summer.

But he has already had to postpone his next big initiative, an overhaul of the tax code. And barring some crisis that creates another rally-round-the-president effect, analysts said, Mr. Bush's best opportunity to drive the agenda may be past.

To many Republicans, Mr. Bush's problems are not unexpected given his willingness to take on politically difficult issues like Social Security and immigration. They say that divisions within the party are manageable and that Mr. Bush's doggedness and personal appeal ensure that he will still drive the debate on Capitol Hill and around the country, even if he does not get everything he wants.

"More is being done than it appears," said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, pointing to the enactment this year of laws changing the bankruptcy system and limiting class-action lawsuits, as well as Mr. Bush's success in moving more of his judicial appointments through the Senate.

But, Mr. King added, "it's still going to be difficult on Social Security and immigration."

"He will be in control of the agenda, but that control is not going to be as emphatic as it was in the first four years," Mr. King said.

Democrats said Mr. Bush's problems were of his own making, and stemmed from a tendency toward insistence on doing things his way and viewing bipartisanship as nothing more than winning over a few Democrats to get legislation passed.

Mr. Bush and his administration now find themselves with little or no support from Democrats and with a Republican Party that has proved reluctant to support him on a number of fronts.

"Their domestic agenda is really stalled, and they're pretty much looking for an exit ramp," said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon. "They seem to have been unwilling to shift from the politics of a first-term president who has to run for re-election into the clear-eyed policy of a second-term president who wants to be able to point to substantive achievements."

To some extent, Mr. Bush's problems are a result of diverging political interests: the lawmakers he is asking to support him on difficult issues like Social Security, trade and immigration have to run for re-election, many of them next year, while he has the luxury of thinking about his place in history and reshaping, for the long term, politics and policy.

The current situation also reflects Mr. Bush's style of not giving an inch until defeat is certain, and only then compromising or capitulating.

At a recent meeting with Republican Congressional leaders, Mr. Bush told them, "We're on the verge of getting a lot of things done," according to a White House official who was there. The 55 Republican senators have been invited to hold their weekly policy luncheon at the White House on Tuesday, a gesture that is part of an effort by the administration to respond to grumbling among Republicans that the White House has failed to open good lines of communication with Capitol Hill.

"While it's been a rough 45 days, Bush can and will get back on track, and all those jitters will go away," said Scott W. Reed, a Republican consultant who managed Bob Dole's 1996 campaign for president.

But Mr. Lichtman said history suggested that it was difficult for second-term presidents to regain their clout in domestic policy once they had dissipated it.

"Second terms have never been redeemed by domestic policy," he said. "It's very difficult once you've had problems in domestic policy, as they almost all do, to come back. To the extent you've had them come out successfully, it's because of foreign affairs."