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President Bush Faces Waning Political Capital in Final Year

October 18, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: With a little more than a year left in his second term, President Bush finds himself fending off questions about how effective he remains when it comes to shaping the national political agenda.

JOURNALIST: Do you feel as if you’re losing leverage and that you’re becoming increasingly irrelevant? And what can you do about that to…

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Quite the contrary. I’ve never felt more engaged and more capable of helping people recognize — American people recognize that there’s a lot of unfinished business. And, you know, I’m really looking forward to the next 15 months, looking forward to getting some things done for the American people.

JEFFREY BROWN: That exchange at yesterday’s press conference came the same day that a new Reuters-Zogby poll showed the president’s approval rating had dipped to a new low of 24 percent.

Even so, President Bush is still winning some battles, including today’s showdown in the House over S-CHIP, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and brokering a deal with the Senate on oversight of a warrantless surveillance program targeting terrorists.

The president’s nominee for U.S. attorney general, Michael Mukasey, seems slated for Senate approval. And Mr. Bush appears to have forced Congress to back down on an Armenian genocide resolution.

GEORGE W. BUSH: With all these pressing responsibilities, one thing Congress should not be doing is sorting out the historical record of the Ottoman Empire.

JEFFREY BROWN: And while the president may not be putting forward major new initiatives these days, yesterday he seemed eager to blame Congress, controlled by Democrats, for legislative gridlock.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We’re now more than halfway through October, and the new leaders in Congress have had more than nine months to get things done for the American people. Unfortunately, they haven’t managed to pass many important bills. Now the clock is winding down. In some key areas, Congress is just getting started.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here, the president was picking his target with care: Yesterday’s poll showed Congress’s approval rating stood even lower than his.

Power to set an agenda

JEFFREY BROWN: And now how all this looks to four editorial page editors: Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; J.R. Labbe of the Fort Worth Star Telegram; Bruce Dold of the Chicago Tribune; and John Diaz of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Well, John, I'll start out west with you. Do you see a president who still has the power to set an agenda and have his way?

JOHN DIAZ, San Francisco Chronicle: Well, I think, frankly, no. I think the president -- I would never say that the occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is irrelevant, but I'd say that there are -- I think the numbers we're seeing in this poll is because there is some real questions about whether he or Congress is willing to take on the kinds of initiatives that the American people care about.

What they care about is things like their retirement. We now have the first baby boomers qualifying for Social Security. They worry about health care. They worry about climate change. They worry about a broken immigration system.

And what they're seeing out of Washington is a Congress and a president that are getting in big, long fights other things like nominations or non-binding resolutions that don't change a thing about the war in Iraq. That, I think, is a frustration we're seeing in those poll numbers.

JEFFREY BROWN: J.R. Labbe, you're historically in Bush territory there. How do you assess his strengths or weaknesses right now?

J.R. LABBE, Fort Worth Star Telegram: Well, I'm glad that John included the phrase "and the Congress" when he was talking about the president's capabilities of doing anything from here on. Those numbers do indicate that one in four Americans still support this president, and I think it's premature to say that he's totally ineffective in moving forward on issues.

I would agree with John that the numbers do reflect a frustration and a concern on the part of the American people, and that includes the Star Telegram readers here in Texas, that they are not focusing on important issues.

But the Armenian resolution, quite frankly, was a very important resolution here in north Texas, which is heavily military and defense focused. Not only did they see the Democrats push for that resolution as something that potentially weakens our troops' position in Iraq, but we have an awful lot of military contracts on the table with Turkey that, not only is it a moral and military support issue, but it's money in people's pockets here in north Texas if that relationship goes south.

So there was a lot of support here in Texas for the president's position on that particular resolution.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Cynthia Tucker in Atlanta, how do you see his powers to push any agenda right now?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Well, I would have to agree with John on this one. The president lacks the power to set an agenda at this point, but he retains an awful lot of power to stay the course for the things that he wants. And, also, the veto is a very powerful tool to block things that he doesn't want.

He can't push any new legislation; he can't chart a new direction. But he retains an awful lot of determination to stay the course on foreign policy and to block certain kinds of domestic initiatives, even if they're very popular domestic initiatives.

The S-CHIP program for children is very popular. Most of the public backs it. The president vetoed it nevertheless.

And the most interesting thing is he retains the ability to get most of the Republican Congress to line up behind him. I find that fascinating, because the president won't face the voters again, but many of these Republican congressmen will. But yet they are willing to stick with the president on unpopular things, like staying the course in Iraq and vetoing the S-CHIP legislation, health care for children.

So the president does maintain the power to influence Republican members of Congress.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Bruce Dold, do you think that things like the S-CHIP and other things that we've cited in our set-up and that Cynthia just talked about, does that show some residual political capital that the president can use for an agenda going forward?

BRUCE DOLD: You know, I think, first, that he's still the only vote that counts on national security and foreign policy. And when you see Congress try and deal with the Armenian genocide issue or you see the Senate vote for partition of Iraq, they don't get anywhere on it. And I think that, again, signals his strength.

I think that's the problem for Democrats in Congress. And you see that 11 percent poll number is because, on the left, people are unhappy that they have not been able to be more effective. And on the right, they're unhappy that they are bucking up against Bush.

Now, S-CHIP is a very substantial issue. And my newspaper was with the Democrats on that issue. I think where you might see them wind up is at about $14 billion, which keeps the program that you have now. I don't really see the S-CHIP veto, sustaining of that, as a victory for Bush, and I do think it's going to be very, very difficult for him to have any kind of a forward-looking domestic agenda.

Assessing the public's interests

JEFFREY BROWN: John Diaz, you started this talking about issues that you think the public wants but is not seeing. What kind of things? What kind of things do you think the public wants that perhaps could go forward in this environment?

JOHN DIAZ: Well, I think, in this current environment, I'm not sure that any of the things that are really the kitchen-table issues for Americans are going to be dealt with, things like, am I going to have enough money to retire? Is the retirement that I'm counting on going to be there? Things like health care, things like the education of their children, first of all, the quality of schools K-12 and beyond, whether they can afford sending their children to college.

The problem with the culture in Washington right now is, as we're seeing in this discussion, is success is not defined by what you accomplish but what you stop the other party from doing. I know my e-mail box every morning is filled with missives from the Republican and Democratic operatives of the issues of the day.

And I would say the overwhelming majority of those are basically taking on the other side, as opposed to highlighting what they're doing. And you see words like "hypocritical," or "corrupt," or "unethical" used to describe the other party. One of the problems with what's going on in Washington is their tactics of victory by the other's defeat seems to be working.

JEFFREY BROWN: J.R. Labbe, I'll ask you the same thing. Look forward for us. Do you see the ability for some compromises on some given agenda items at this point that the president or Congress could put forward?

J.R. LABBE: Oh, Jeffrey, I don't know that it's possible at this point in time, in history, with how much time he has left. You know, he's trying very hard with Secretary Rice to come up with some kind of at least peace discussions in the Middle East, but I don't believe that's very high on the radar of the American people outside of the context of the Iraq war.

There is a huge concern here in Texas, of course, about immigration issues, but we sort of saw that circling the bowl during the summer, and no one is anticipating that that will come back as an issue prior to the election next year.

So it's almost as if, around the kitchen tables at least here in Texas, everybody's sort of taking a big sigh and said, "Well, I guess we'll just wait to see who comes up next," because they're not anticipating that anything will get done between now and that election.

An issue of 'Washington fatigue'

JEFFREY BROWN: Cynthia, what about that? Who comes next? Do you think there's a sense of exhaustion or a sense that nothing's going to happen, it's time to wait and see a year down the line?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I do think so. I think many voters are feeling a sense of Bush fatigue. In fact, even many conservative voters are feeling that. I think people know that.

This administration isn't going to get very much more accomplished. Bush's approval ratings are below 40 percent even here in Georgia, which is a red state. And so I think that people are very realistic about the limitations that he faces.

I also think people know that the calendar, the political calendar, has become very complicated now by presidential politics. We have members of the Senate who are now running for the presidency, and they're going to calculate everything that they do based on how it will play in the presidential election.

So I think what we're facing the next year, when very little will be accomplished on the domestic front, and there's still some very challenging issues out there. One that hasn't been mentioned very much is the economy. People are feeling a lot of economic unease. There is the subprime crisis in mortgages that is affecting a lot of people, including here in Georgia. But I don't think we'll see very much action on those things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bruce Dold, I'm struck -- I guess I imagine a lot of viewers would be, too -- we're all talking about things that won't happen over the next 15 months, and yet we do have 15 months. You are one of the people that said that the president does maintain some political capital going forward. What should he do over these next 15 months?

BRUCE DOLD: Well, obviously, he's going to have his most influence on international issues and on anti-terrorism efforts. Beyond that, politically, probably not much that he can do.

I think we're seeing two trends here, one that our readers really have dialed out of Washington. I think it's a Washington fatigue. And we've seen it ever since the Iraq week, when General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker gave their testimony. I don't know that, you know, there was a great sense of satisfaction, but people have turned much more to local issues.

We've got a good Chicago tax revolt brewing now. So they haven't been writing as much on national issues, and I don't think they expect much on the big issues, like immigration.

The other thing that we've seen is that Republicans in Illinois -- which is a very Democratic state -- are distancing themselves from the president. They're voting much more independently. Part of that may be that Denny Hastert is no longer the speaker, the Republican leader, and they don't feel the same loyalty. But they're also getting nervous about the next election and trying to establish themselves as much more independent Republicans, independent of the president.

Focusing on Iraq, economy

JEFFREY BROWN: Bruce, it's interesting that you set that clock back to that week when General Petraeus testified. Why? What do you think happened?

BRUCE DOLD: I think it was dramatic. I think there was -- you know, there was such a buildup, and then there was no real resolution in Congress, that I think people that saw there wasn't going to be something dramatic that happened. They did see some sign of progress from Petraeus and Crocker; they were somewhat satisfied with that. And they looked back to, you know, the pocketbook issues, the local issues that affect them, really affect them more deeply.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Diaz, what do you think?

JOHN DIAZ: Well, certainly, I would say here among our readership we still see a lot of focus on what's coming out of Washington.

One of the things that really struck me in this poll, Jeffrey, is the number of people -- 54 percent -- who rated their personal financial situation excellent or good. Usually when you see a number like that, that lifts all tides for politicians, but we're not seeing it here.

And I think interestingly some of the same issues that are sinking President Bush are also sinking Congress. Those who are opposed to the war are either angry at Bush certainly for his policy, but also angry at Congress for not challenging him more forthrightly. That's something we clearly see at letters to the editor at the Chronicle.

JEFFREY BROWN: J.R. Labbe, we only have 30 seconds. Do you see this move on from Iraq to other issues at this point?

J.R. LABBE: Well, what we're seeing locally is still a lot of focus on, as I said early, the immigration issue. Because the feds have punted on that, many of our state lawmakers are trying to find ways that they can address the problems.

And our big local issue here is we have individual cities who are passing criminal alien programs, where they're arresting illegals that have misdemeanor warrants out and deporting them. And it has many, many people on both sides of the issue riled up.

But our focus is still somewhat on Washington, mainly because we're getting used to being in a minority position when it comes to our representatives. We went from having some of the big dogs on the porch there, and now that the Republicans are the minority, we're feeling it in the ways of money not coming back to our area on big projects.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, we have to leave it there. J.R. Labbe, John Diaz, Bruce Dold and Cynthia Tucker, thank you all very much.