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Public's concerns top Bush agenda

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - With his second-term priorities stalling and his approval ratings in the doldrums, President Bush is making new efforts to reassure the public about the war in Iraq and the health of the economy, hoping to reclaim the support he needs to re-energize his ambitious agenda.

Bush, known for his flair for using his popularity and the powers of the presidency to define debates and push through his initiatives, has stumbled in recent weeks, raising doubts about his ability to accomplish key goals, including remaking Social Security and the tax code and enacting a new immigration policy.

The president's allies and some analysts expect Bush to bounce back easily. But others say that Bush has squandered the first six months of this term and wonder whether he can reclaim enough lost momentum and public support to win his highest priorities.

Bush "has lost some control of the agenda and needs a new focus. This was the period of time where he had a chance to do something in his second term, and it hasn't happened," said John C. Fortier, who studies the presidency at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Fortier said Bush needs an entirely new theme that can capture the public imagination and spark renewed enthusiasm - feats that he's failed to accomplish thus far this term.

The president "can make some good arguments about the economy and Iraq, and he's right to make the best case, but these are not earth-shaking changes that will grab people's attention and win him support," Fortier said. "It's not going to help him much if it's not something people can rally around that can really change the focus and create a proactive theme for Bush."

Radio address

The president began shifting his message yesterday, using his weekly radio address as an opportunity to show that he's concerned about the bloody conflict in Iraq and people's economic woes. Even so, he argued that his policies have yielded great progress on both fronts.

"We have good reasons to be optimistic about our economy," Bush said in the address, which aides described last week as his first salvo in a comprehensive effort to sharpen his focus on the public's two top concerns. "We need to work together to ensure that opportunity reaches every corner of our great country.

"We're also keeping you safe from threats from abroad," Bush told his audience. "By making their stand in Iraq, the terrorists have made Iraq a vital test for the future security of our country and the free world. We will settle for nothing less than victory."

Bush will amplify the themes in his public appearances this week, including a Wednesday speech on energy policy and the economy at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plants in Lusby, Md., and a Friday meeting and news conference at the White House with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

The new focus suggests a pivot from efforts Bush wanted to highlight in his second term - such as overhauling Social Security and the tax code - in order to calm public anxiety on issues that have dogged him throughout his presidency.

"If the core of your governing strategy is public support - and for Bush, it is - and your support is dissipating - and his is - then you've got to do something to deal with it. You've got to go to the issues that people really care about," said George C. Edwards III, a political science professor at Texas A&M; University who specializes in presidential approval.

"The reality is the agenda of people is quite different from what [Bush] was talking about."

In some cases, Bush is actively turning away from what were to be the centerpieces of his second four years to rally support around the accomplishments of his first.

A case in point: Bush embarked late last week on a national effort to promote the benefits for seniors of the Medicare prescription drug benefit he pushed through Congress in 2003.

On the same day, he announced he was delaying the due-date for a report from his commission on reshaping the tax code until the end of September, likely pushing off any action until next year.

The president's aides deny that he is backing down on any of his priorities. They say that Bush is continuing to hold Social Security events - including one scheduled for Thursday - and say it is up to Congress to act this year on legislation to shore up the program.

Bush's allies say it's only fitting that the president would want to pause and focus his attention on issues that rank highest on the public list of worries. And they express confidence that Bush will have success in pushing his top priorities despite his drop in approval ratings and the slow pace of progress on Social Security and other agenda items.

Bush "concentrated a lot of his time and attention early on educating the public on Social Security. It's just a matter now of spending some time and a few of his press days on those issues that might be concerning people," said Charles Black, a veteran Republican strategist who often serves as an informal adviser to Bush.

Other analysts argue, however, that Bush will have to substantially pare back his second-term aspirations in the face of his drop in popularity and his failure to rally support behind his ambitious agenda.

Bush "grossly overestimated his political capital from the 2004 elections - he thought he had a mandate and he didn't," Edwards said. "He's not going to be able to get big things done based on a 'going public' strategy."

That could leave Bush with a "modest" domestic agenda, Edwards added, made up of initiatives he can accomplish through executive order: making his first-term tax cuts permanent, and possibly smaller scale changes in the tax code and Social Security.

Fortier said that Bush came into the term with strong momentum to make big changes but that his faltering Social Security push may have sapped energy for the rest of his agenda.

'Political capital'

"The question is: Did he spend his political capital - or attempt to spend it - on Social Security in a way that has dragged on so long that you have a vacuum in terms of Bush putting his stamp on the agenda?" Fortier said.

Few expect to see Bush, who prizes his reputation as a resolute leader, abandon his top second-term goals. Some strategists suggest, however, that the president's latitude for enacting broad policy changes could depend in large part on his success in the coming weeks in burnishing his image and regaining public support.

Bush "needs to score on issues, and so if he keeps running into opposition in the public, that could be a problem," said John J. Pitney, a former Republican strategist who teaches politics at Claremont McKenna College. "He's making a tactical shift right now, but this is not a president who plays 'small ball,' to use one of his favorite terms, and I think he's going to surprise people with his tenacity."

President Ronald Reagan, who enacted the last broad tax overhaul during his second term, weathered months of speculation that the initiative was dead.

"Reagan just stuck at it, and he had some luck," Pitney said. "I think the Bush White House is hoping that the story line will follow the Reagan story line."

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