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A Newly Hamstrung Bush Faces 'Bumps in the Road'

Presidency: With the defeat of Arctic drilling and the stalemate in the Mideast, the prospects for progress this year grow dimmer.

April 21, 2002|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush has come face to face with the limits of the American presidency.

Last week, the Senate dealt him a major energy policy defeat when it thwarted his plan to drill for oil in the Arctic wilderness. He was defied in the Middle East as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell returned from a lengthy, much-touted mission unable to win a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians. And the White House was caught in the confusing backwash of an attempted coup in Venezuela, scrambling to answer questions about whether it had been willing to support an anti-democratic takeover.

At home and far away, Bush was unable to bend politics and diplomacy in his direction.

Analysts say this should come as no surprise. Seven months after the Sept. 11 attacks that focused Bush's energies on launching the war on terrorism, the last week signaled the return to a more normal period in which his ability to command events is more constrained. And it forecast new challenges for his administration.

Back to Persuasion, Compromise for Bush

"We are back to a space in which Bush can't rely on people rallying to him because of the war on terror, but he has to be persuasive on each of these other issues on their own rights and on their own terms," said John Podesta, White House chief of staff during the final years of the Clinton administration.

Podesta added: "He can't get up in the morning and expect he'll tell everyone what he wants them to do and they'll salute."

That means if Bush expects to end the year with a list of accomplishments on such domestic concerns as energy and environmental policy, the budget and the cost of prescription drugs, he likely would be forced to delve into the nitty-gritty of persuasion and compromise.

So far, he has shown little inclination for this approach. "His relations with Congress are marginal at best," said a veteran of Republican administrations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

On some fronts, that has been obvious for some time. His efforts to prod the Senate to speedily approve his judicial nominations have been unsuccessful. And with Democrats in charge of the Senate and only a few major issues on his legislative agenda, Bush may have a difficult time turning to Congress to demonstrate momentum as November's midterm elections approach.

Certainly, Bush's poll rating--74% of those surveyed approved of his performance in office, according to a poll last week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press--hardly signals a presidency in difficulty.

"He's in good shape with the people, the bad week notwithstanding," said Andrew Kohut, the research group's director.

Noting that Bush took office after one of the most disputed elections in U.S. history, Kohut added: "He went from a questioned president to a very successful president and now he's a president who is hitting a couple of bumps in the road. He's getting the full tour."

The road will take the president on Monday to Lake Saranac, N.Y., where, marking Earth Day in the scenic Adirondack mountains, he will promote his proposals to fight air pollution.

A competing message is expected from Al Gore, Bush's opponent in the 2000 campaign. The former vice president, reemerging in the public arena, will deliver what is being billed as a major speech on the environment Monday at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

On Wednesday, Bush will travel to South Dakota for a speech on trade policy and for a political fund-raising reception. On Thursday, he will continue to grapple with the Middle East crisis, meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Bush's schedule adheres to the pattern he has established since the start of the year: Over the last 16 weeks, he has been out of Washington for more than half of that time, not counting his weekends at Camp David, and has picked up about $15 million in contributions for Republican candidates and the party.

Mideast Peace May Rely on Bush's Inclusion

Therein could lie some of the difficulties the Bush White House is encountering, suggests former Sen. David Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat who is on the faculty of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"I wonder if they're taking their eyes off the ball and have swung into a campaign mode and have moved away from the issues on the Hill," he said.

As reluctant as Bush was to get involved in the Middle East, Pryor said, he clearly has no choice but to concentrate on the crisis, especially now that Powell has returned from his trip without winning a commitment to a cease-fire from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"It's a big gamble, but I don't think Arafat and Sharon will meet each other unless the president of the United States calls them together," Pryor said. "I think the president is going to have to convene these guys."

Bush, Pryor said, "set a tone pretty early that this was not going to be something he'd engage in. It did give both sides a reason to think they could do some things and not be called on the carpet.

"Maybe he now senses the reality of governing," Pryor said.

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