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Bush set to cash in on 'peace dividend'

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WASHINGTON -- With Saddam Hussein toppled, President Bush is soon likely to have a rare chance to capitalize on a postwar surge in popularity to advance his domestic agenda and achieve long-held goals at home.

Though the war is not over, Bush's success in swiftly ousting the Iraqi president's regime could make him a force to be reckoned with in Washington in coming months. He will try to score victories on such issues as tax cuts, education and health-care initiatives, and the confirmation of conservative judicial nominees. Some of those items have stalled on Capitol Hill as the war has absorbed Bush's time and attention.

Bush's father saw his popularity soar to stratospheric heights after he won the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, then plummet, in large part because of public perceptions that he was indifferent about a poor economy. The elder Bush eventually lost his re-election bid. This President Bush is determined to avoid that fate.

"There will be a peace dividend. There'll be huzzahs, and this president, I think, is smart enough to cash in on it," said Tom Korologos, a veteran Republican lobbyist. "There's a lot of reserve political cash in that vault that he can draw on for his domestic program."

On Friday, Bush signaled the priority he would assign to issues vital to Americans at home. He noted, in particular, the need to boost the ailing economy and to reform Medicare. "There's a lot on my agenda," the president said at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, where he visited sailors and Marines wounded in the war.

Bush's advisers play down any notion that he neglected domestic matters before and during the war or that he is counting on a postwar boost to help push through his agenda.

"There has been no cessation in domestic energy," a senior administration official said. "We're not at ease because we're at war. It's just a little below the radar."

Bush, this official said, has "always been able to engage the Congress and get things done on the domestic side."

Still, Bush's advisers concede that the demise of Hussein's regime will inevitably renew a focus on such home-front issues as the economy, health care and education.

"I look for us to turn our attentions -- rightfully so -- to the domestic side" after the war, the administration official said.

The president and his top political adviser, Karl Rove, have shown a willingness and ability to use the full weight of the White House to back legislative initiatives and help elect Republicans. Bush succeeded, for example, in pushing through an across-the-board tax cut in 2001 and in helping Republicans score sweeping victories in last year's congressional elections.

"I expect that he'll expend his excess political capital at the end of the war," said Sheila Tate, a former Republican spokeswoman. "It's his inclination to do so, and he's not been afraid to before. He'll push for everything he can get."

In the latest Newsweek poll, 71 percent of respondents said they approved of Bush's handling of his job, up 18 percentage points from a month ago, before the war began. The new poll was conducted Thursday and Friday; the margin of error was 3 percentage points.

There is still some risk that a persistent humanitarian crisis or lawlessness in Iraq could cloud the perception of U.S. success and limit a rise in Bush's popularity. And some Republicans concede that as the war subsides, Democrats could become bolder about criticizing Bush and challenging his priorities. The weak economy Bush is presiding over could also fall under more scrutiny.

"The president will have some good will coming off of what I hope will be a successful result in Iraq," said Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican leader who is close to the White House. The lesson of 1991 is "you cannot warehouse good will and support -- we need to harness it."

Republican leaders know they will need more than a popular president to push through top agenda items. Victory in Iraq, they say, will shift attention back to domestic issues on which Democrats think Bush might be vulnerable and could motivate his opponents to work harder to derail his agenda.

The White House and Republican leaders have been working to avoid repeating the mistakes of Bush's father. With bombs falling and bullets flying, they have continued to push the Bush economic-growth package over 10 years -- as well as an energy-policy overhaul, his "faith-based" initiative and the contentious nomination of Judge Miguel A. Estrada to a federal district court.

But the effort has suffered severe setbacks, and some Bush allies say he will have to make up a substantial amount of ground to recover.

The president has seen his growth package jeopardized as Republican moderates have joined Democrats to insist that Congress approve no more than $350 billion in tax cuts. Before that, eight Republicans joined Democrats to oppose oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a major part of Bush's energy policy.

It was only after Republicans made a major concession to Democrats that they won agreement to pass the faith-based measure. But they have been unable, in the face of Democratic resistance, to bring Estrada's nomination to a final vote.

Senate moderates whose votes Bush will need to pass his top agenda items -- such as the tax cut and the creation of a Medicare prescription-drug benefit -- say they will not simply fall into line for a president buoyed by wartime success.

"I don't vote for things based on the popularity of the president," said Sen. George V. Voinovich, a moderate Ohio Republican who says he will not support tax cuts larger than $350 billion.

Those who back Bush's domestic agenda say they hope that a quick and successful resolution of the war can help mobilize support for his priorities.

"The White House isn't paying much attention at all right now to what's going on" domestically, said John J. Motley III, chief lobbyist for the Food Marketing Institute and a member of the Tax Relief Coalition. "If Bush isn't engaged, then we lose a very, very strong ally, and he can't be engaged now. When the war is over, I think we can all turn to him to start doing that."

Democrats acknowledge that Bush will enjoy a surge in public approval as the war ends. But they say they won't stop criticizing domestic proposals they believe are unfair.

"Whatever the president's postwar popularity is, we're going to continue to oppose policies that we think are bad for the country," said the House Democratic whip, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland.

And they see a silver lining: After failing for weeks to break through war news to highlight domestic problems for which they blame Bush, Democrats say they'll be able to trumpet their views on the economy, education and health care -- topics on which they say their positions mirror the views of most voters.

"Certainly, his popularity is going to be higher," said Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, chairman of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. "The downside for the president is that once the war is over, people will focus on the domestic agenda, and the domestic agenda is a God-awful mess."

The costs of the war have dampened enthusiasm on Capitol Hill and around the nation for costly new tax cuts, the heart of Bush's economic plan.

"If that's going to be what we're talking about -- tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts -- then I think he's going to have problems," Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, said of Bush.

Sun staff writer David L. Greene contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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