Archives>BUSH PRESIDENCY> Bush Is Still Winning War There, but He Begins to Lose Battle Here

Bush Is Still Winning War There, but He Begins to Lose Battle Here
DAVID E. SANGER . NY Times . 9 march 2002

WASHINGTON, March 8 — Ever since Sept. 11, President Bush has used his steady command of the war and his soaring approval ratings to his enormous political advantage. As one aide said not long ago, "With these kinds of approval ratings, why compromise?"

But this week Mr. Bush has found himself compromising plenty. On a variety of policy and personnel issues he is even in the odd position of playing defense at home while continuing on the offense against Al Qaeda.

None of his troubles, by themselves, amount to major setbacks in Washington terms. After all, the evidence this week indicates that the economy is bouncing back faster and stronger than many expected — easing the fears of White House political strategists that Mr. Bush might be doomed to repeat the bitter experience of his father. Also, with Democrats disorganized and American forces seeking out terrorists in Afghanistan and beyond, there is no question the president is the biggest power to be reckoned with, here and abroad.

But the combination of Mr. Bush's troubles in Congress and signs of eroding discipline within the administration suggests, as one White House official conceded recently, that "the post-attack glow is fading."

In fact, the list of recent annoyances, compromises and minor battles lost is a bit startling.

The economic stimulus package that Congress approved overwhelmingly this week is far closer to what Democrats proposed last year than to what Mr. Bush had in mind, though that did not stop Mr. Bush from enthusiastically embracing it.

His announcement on Wednesday that he would impose tariffs of up to 30 percent on imported steel in an effort to save a long-declining industry was welcomed by the industry and workers fearful of layoffs. But it left the White House in the awkward position of explaining why Mr. Bush had turned on his free-trade principles and how much that reversal would cost Americans paying for cars, houses and washing machines.

The problems hardly stopped there. Mr. Bush's effort to elevate Judge Charles W. Pickering to a federal appeals court is virtually certain to be rebuffed by Senate Democrats, and the White House has all but given up efforts to put together the 60 votes needed to break a threatened Senate filibuster on the president's proposal to drill for oil in the Alaska wildlife refuge.

Mr. Bush's handpicked candidate for governor of California, the former Los Angeles mayor Richard J. Riordan, was trounced in the Republican primary, leaving White House officials grumbling that their man had run an incompetent campaign.

Also, for the first time in his presidency, Mr. Bush had to fire a political appointee for public disloyalty, showing the door to the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, Mike Parker, a popular former congressman, who had testified before Congress that the Bush budget proposal for the corps was at best unrealistic and at worst a cynical ploy to force Congress to take the blame for spending more.

All this was happening as Mr. Bush was forced by the enormity of the violence breaking out in the Mideast to reverse himself there. He confronted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel over his policy of shelling the Palestinians to the bargaining table and announced that he had changed his mind and would dispatch a special envoy to the region.

There is no evidence that any of this has diminished Mr. Bush's standing with the public. But there are indications that his successes in the war have not proven easily transferable to Congress or to foreign allies. Some say he should not be surprised.

"This often happens in times of war," said Allan J. Lichtman, a professor of history at American University and a student of the strains of presidential power. "It's not usually been a moment to advance your domestic agenda, no matter how tall you are standing in the war."

Mr. Lichtman contends that Mr. Bush's approval ratings may have been over-read in the White House. Even when Americans showed overwhelming support for the president and his leadership, he said, approval of specific policies ran a lot lower.

"They were looking at the moon reflecting the light of the sun," he said, "and didn't notice that the heat was missing."

Not surprisingly, White House officials interpret these same events in a very different way. Whatever compromises were made on the economic stimulus bill, said Dan Bartlett, Mr. Bush's communications director, "the bottom line is that this only passed through the president's insistence, and that's the only reason we finally have Congressional action on helping America's workers."

The Pickering nomination and the problems with Alaskan drilling, Mr. Bartlett added, show the dangers of a world in which "there's a new definition of a majority vote in the Senate." He referred to the 60-vote minimum to bring an issue to a vote, glossing over the fact that Republicans have used the filibuster themselves to thwart Democratic presidents.

As for the reversal on the Middle East, the national security team says there was none, just an opportunity that Mr. Bush alertly leaped on, created by the revulsion over the escalation of violence and the hope created by Saudi Arabia's declaration that peace could lead to normalization of Israel's relations with its neighbors.

"This hasn't been a bad week," Mr. Bartlett insisted. "It's been a week of presidential leadership."

Whether it is leadership or Washington gamesmanship, there is little question that the White House is not quite as zipped up as it was only a few months ago.

In Mr. Bush's first year, it was rare that news of policy differences leaked out, at least until well after those differences were resolved. Certainly, documents stayed inside the White House. But now Mr. Bush's circle of appointees has spread far beyond the loyal corps that grew up in his governor's office, or in the heat of the presidential campaign. This means that there is a reasonable chance that differences of opinion will be made public, often to the distress of the president.

That was the case with Mr. Parker. A memorandum written by Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the president's budget director, to Andrew H. Card, the White House chief of staff; Mr. Card's deputy, Josh Bolten; and Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, made it clear that the White House viewed Mr. Parker's budget comments as disloyal. He was gone in hours.

When the steel decision was being debated, it was clear that many of Mr. Bush's advisers took radically different positions on what the president should do. But that time the White House tried to turn the differences into an advantage, using them to signal both sides that the best the president could work out was a compromise that would leave everyone a little unhappy.