Expect Bush to Stay Ambitious

Times Staff Writer

With his State of the Union address Tuesday night, George W. Bush will continue to define himself as a president who is as willing to go to war at home as abroad.

Aides say Bush will recommit himself to a series of ambitious goals certain to incite intense political conflict: passing a massive new tax cut when the federal budget already has fallen into deficit, imposing the most fundamental structural changes on Medicare since its inception in 1965, and rallying opinion in America and around the world for a possible invasion of Iraq.

"When he gets done with this speech, people will say he is willing to take on big issues and big challenges and to use his political capital to achieve great ends," one senior White House aide said.

That tendency to swing for the fences is becoming a signature of Bush's presidency. Although he took office after the closest presidential election since the late 19th century, and is governing with only a slim Republican majority in Congress, Bush has shown repeatedly he is willing, even eager, to advance ideas that sharply divide the parties in Washington and opinion around the country -- and often the world.

As he prepares for a State of the Union speech that will continue that pattern, the key political question is whether Bush is being bold or reckless -- whether he is shrewdly pressing his advantages or overreaching in a way that will crystallize opposition and weaken him.

Bush and his aides "believe that when they lead, other countries will fall into line, and that the same dynamic applies to Congress," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "We'll see if that's true."

Bush's approach has brought him great successes. In 2001, he won a tax cut much larger than almost any analyst believed possible, $1.35 trillion over 10 years. He has solidified unwavering support from Republican and conservative voters, and demonstrated in November's election that he could translate that enthusiasm into votes for GOP candidates.

His relentless insistence that Iraq must surrender any weapons of mass destruction drove the United Nations to demand, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to accept, a resumption of the international weapons inspection process.

But this success has come at a cost. Abroad, Bush faces rising discontent over his determination to steer his course, especially on Iraq, with or without support from allies.

At home, Bush faces a widening partisan polarization in public attitudes toward his presidency, a declining overall approval rating and growing resistance in polls to many of his key initiatives, including the $670-billion tax cut he's expected to highlight in Tuesday's speech.

Against those currents, Bush is displaying a distinct strategy for retaining the initiative. Rather than trying to blend the priorities of the two parties into a new consensus -- as Bill Clinton often tried -- Bush plants his banner at the edge of public opinion, believing he can pull the debate in his direction, as if by magnetic attraction.

Bush, like all presidents, has inevitably accepted compromise. He worked with Democrats in shaping his initiatives to reform public education. He signed into law a campaign finance reform bill he had criticized, but only after it demonstrated broad support.

In foreign affairs, Bush bent to demands from allies abroad and critics at home that he move through the U.N. before initiating action against Iraq. He may yield again to requests from members of Congress and key international allies to give the U.N. inspection process more time to find persuasive evidence against Hussein before launching an attack.

But all of these have been tactical adjustments in a presidency that almost all observers agree has been bolder, more ambitious and more ideological than either Bush's deal-making record as governor in Texas or the narrowness of his victory in 2000 would have predicted.

Like many conservatives, veteran GOP strategist Jeff Bell was suspicious of Bush when he ran in 2000, partly because Bell had soured on the presidency of Bush's father. But Bell has changed his opinion.

While Bush's father often sought compromise with Democrats, Bell said, this president more resembles Ronald Reagan in his focus on a few goals and his reluctance to offer concessions until unavoidable.

Stephen Skowronek, a Yale University political scientist who specializes in presidential strategies, finds a different parallel for Bush's presidency: Lyndon B. Johnson. With his Great Society in the 1960s, Skowronek said, Johnson sought to "complete the work of Franklin Roosevelt" and the New Deal in expanding the government's safety net. Similarly, he said, Bush has set himself on a course to "complete the conservative agenda" started by Reagan, from tax cuts and reductions in federal regulation to a missile defense system.

The key difference is that Johnson forced through his programs after a landslide election and at a time when Democrats controlled more than two-thirds of the seats in the House and the Senate. Bush, who won the narrowest electoral college victory since 1876, is operating with an advantage of two seats in the Senate and 23 in the House. Skowronek said the last president who sought to pass an agenda as ambitious as Bush's on such a precarious base of support was James K. Polk in the 1840s.

Yet unique factors give Bush more leverage than the size of his 2000 vote or the GOP strength in Congress suggest. He's commanded extraordinary loyalty from congressional Republicans on almost all key votes. He's also peeled off modest numbers of Democrats -- especially from states he carried in 2000 -- on some of his initiatives. Most important, his approval rating has remained high since he impressed the country with his response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Bush shows every sign of intending to maximize those assets. Although he is likely to plead for bipartisanship in his speech Tuesday, he will be pressing a domestic agenda whose core elements -- further tax cuts, a redesign of Medicare intended to increase the role of private insurance companies in delivering benefits, and the appointment of staunch conservatives to federal courts -- excite Republicans and alarm Democrats.

After the GOP gains in November's elections, "the White House just thinks it is in a much more commanding position than in 2000, and [Bush] intends to press his advantage," Marshall said. "That means bipartisanship is not going to be an imperative for the administration, unless the vote count dictates that they have to try it."

Some signs are emerging that the months ahead may grow more tumultuous for Bush.

Moderate Democrats, and even some Republicans, are displaying much less enthusiasm for the new tax cut plan than for the one passed in 2001. The Medicare reform plan Bush is expected to tout in his State of the Union address -- which would provide seniors with prescription drug benefits but encourage them to shift toward health plans operated by private insurance companies -- also promises to divide Congress almost entirely along party lines.

At the same time, Bush's standing with the public, though still formidable, has been steadily eroding. Half a dozen national polls released last week showed Bush's job approval rating dropping below 60% for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks; some of the polls showed his support skidding below 55%.

On specific issues, Bush's standing has fallen further. Although he still draws overwhelmingly positive marks for his handling of terrorism and national security, polls show he's consistently receiving less than 50% support for his performance on the economy and other domestic issues, such as health care and the federal budget deficit. There also is growing skepticism about key elements of his agenda, with polls finding most Americans are opposed to invading Iraq without broad allied support and would rather reduce the federal budget deficit than cut taxes further.

In Bush's camp, there's a growing sense that the shifts in public attitudes toward his specific policies may determine his prospects for reelection in 2004 far less than broader judgments about his style of leadership.

And on those fronts, Bush's charts remain the picture of political health. In the latest Gallup Poll, two-thirds or more of Americans said Bush inspires confidence, has a vision for the country's future, is honest and trustworthy, is a strong and decisive leader and is willing to make tough decisions.

"Reagan and [former British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher both crossed a line where they were more popular as individuals and leaders than individual components of their plan," the senior White House official said. "That may be happening with Bush."

In the months ahead, Bush's public standing may pivot on whether those overwhelmingly positive personal judgments, and the approval for his response to terrorism, outweigh the growing anxiety about the economy and divisions on his domestic priorities and a possible war with Iraq.

"He redefined himself after the terrorist attacks, and that has gone a long way," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, an independent polling organization. "But in the end, I continue to feel it is performance that counts for voters."

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