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He’s Not Walking Like a Lame Duck

Times Staff Writer

When President Bush first latched onto mountain biking as his favored form of exercise, he plowed over rough terrain with a distinctive technique: Even when he pedaled uphill, he refused to shift to a lower gear.

That is an apt metaphor for the way Bush is making his way through the second term of his presidency: No matter how steep the climb to his goals -- to revamp Social Security, to win confirmation for his choice for United Nations ambassador, to bring stability to Iraq -- Bush is pushing on, as if heedless of the enormous obstacles he faces in Congress, around the country and across the globe.

Bush’s doggedness is one of many assets he has retained in his second term, and he has needed it of late as his top priorities have run into heavy weather in Congress. Democratic critics see Bush’s recent troubles as evidence that he has become a lame duck who has lost leverage with lawmakers.

But many analysts -- including foes of the White House -- say it is premature to write off a president who holds a formidable array of political and institutional tools -- and who is determined to use them.

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“I don’t think he is a lame duck,” said Nelson Polsby, a political scientist at UC Berkeley and a Bush critic. “A lame duck is harmless, someone who people disregard because they think he can’t be harmful. He still has plenty of potentiality to make trouble.”

Bush’s ability to influence U.S. foreign policy remains largely unchallenged. He is poised to leave a decisive imprint on the Supreme Court. Among Republicans, he is even more popular than was the icon of American conservatism, Ronald Reagan, at this point in his second term.

And despite tensions with the Republican-led Congress, Bush still enjoys a deep reservoir of goodwill among fellow Republicans for having led the party to strong congressional gains in the 2002 and 2004 elections.

“That’s an incredibly powerful base to be standing on to negotiate and work with Congress,” said GOP pollster Bill McInturff. Still, he said, “does it mean this is the happiest time in his presidency? No.”

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Against that backdrop, Bush’s news conference this week was dominated by questions about the multiple setbacks he has faced recently: the upswing of insurgent violence in Iraq; the lack of action on his Social Security initiative; new obstacles to Senate confirmation of his pick to be U.N. ambassador, John R. Bolton; and House approval of a bill that would loosen his restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research, legislation Bush had threatened to veto.

Bush responded with characteristic bravado.

“I don’t worry about anything here in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “I feel comfortable in my role as the president, and my role as the president is to push for reform.”

Democrats, meanwhile, said Bush’s defensive posture during the news conference was evidence of his waning political clout even within his party. “Lame Duck: If it quacks like a Bush ... " was the headline of a statement from the Democratic National Committee. It asserted: “President Bush is fighting a losing battle to avoid becoming a political lame duck.”

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Bush’s effort in Tuesday’s meeting to reassert himself with reporters was reminiscent of a mid-1995 news conference in which President Clinton, weathering the political storm that followed the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress, made an extraordinary point of insisting he had not been rendered irrelevant.

“The president is relevant,” Clinton said. “The Constitution gives me relevance.”

Indeed, it was after that seeming low point of Clinton’s presidency that he racked some of his biggest accomplishments -- welfare reform, a balanced budget and more.

Bush may likewise recover from his recent rough patch to accomplish ambitious things, and his trademark stubbornness could help him in that regard. But some critics say the president’s biggest political problem is not that his agenda has proved so hard to achieve, but that his agenda is too far removed from the kitchen-table concerns of voters worried about the economy, high gas prices and healthcare.

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Bush’s persistence through this difficult period “illustrates one of his strengths: his ability to ride out mood swings,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank. “But he has to come to grips with the fact that he faces a relevance gap.”

Many of the assets Bush brings to his second term distinguish him from other two-term presidents. Unlike President Reagan’s broad-brush “Morning in America” campaign for reelection in 1984, for example, Bush ran in 2004 on a specific agenda of new issues, notably overhauling Social Security and the tax code. Some Bush allies say his recent troubles in Congress are a measure of how ambitious his aims are, not how much leverage he has lost.

“You have a president who, unlike previous second-term presidents, ran on a very specific agenda different from what he had tried to do in his first term,” said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “You have a president who wants to do very big things in a second term.”

At the same time, Bush has the invaluable asset -- enjoyed by no second-term GOP president since Calvin Coolidge -- of having Congress controlled by his own party. The Republican majority spares Bush the kinds of opposition-led investigations that dogged the second terms of Reagan and Clinton.

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Bush’s continuing sway over Republicans, even when their political interests conflict, was in evidence in the debate over Bolton’s nomination. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) -- a maverick up for reelection in 2006, who had threatened to vote against Bolton -- ended up voting for him, even though political analysts said that vote would be politically risky for him in his overwhelmingly Democratic state. The Senate has not yet taken final action on the Bolton nomination.

But Bush is facing an immutable fact of second-term life: Republicans in Congress will be on the ballot in 2006 and 2008, and Bush will not. That has made Republicans on Capitol Hill much more wary of the political risks entailed in acting on such sensitive issues as Social Security and immigration law.

“No question it’s a tension -- a tension you’re beginning to see quietly and appropriately over the last 60 days on these issues,” said pollster McInturff.

Social Security, in fact, is one of the issues that have prompted questions about whether Bush has lost clout. Despite the months he has spent promoting his plan to overhaul the program, public opinion is not mobilizing behind his proposal, and there is no consensus on Capitol Hill.

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But Bush insists he is not deterred. “This is just the beginning of a difficult debate,” Bush said at his Tuesday news conference.

Bush suffered a highly visible loss when the House disregarded his veto threat and passed legislation to expand federal support for stem cell research. But his allies quickly cast that defeat as a victory: The vote showed there was not enough opposition to Bush to override his veto.

“The votes to sustain his veto are plentiful,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy. “If Congress wanted to send a message, that was certainly an opportunity.”

Public approval of Bush’s handling of domestic policy has sagged, but polls find continuing confidence in his leadership on combating terrorism. His singular role in foreign affairs has been underscored of late by a parade of foreign dignitaries visiting the White House and his administration’s continuing efforts to promote democracy abroad. Though violence in Iraq has persisted, bipartisan congressional majorities gave Bush almost everything he wanted to finance U.S. operations there.

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And even if Bush’s legislative agenda founders in his second term, he will have a chance to make an impact on domestic policy for decades to come: A vacancy, and maybe more than one, is expected on the Supreme Court.

Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this report.


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