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THE NATION | NEWS ANALYSIS

Bush's Troublesome Week May Be Just the Beginning

July 13, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — This week, President Bush spent more time on the defensive than at any point since Sept. 11--and possibly since he took office.

In grueling succession, Bush endured stinging questions about his personal business dealings, received mostly negative reviews for the major speech he delivered on corporate responsibility, confronted signs that even congressional Republicans considered his response inadequate to the firestorm and ended the week with the grim news that the government was heading toward its largest budget deficit since the mid-1990s.

In all, Bush has probably had a rougher week than anyone in public life this side of beleaguered major league baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.

Analysts in both parties say the turbulence is unlikely to immediately affect Bush's astronomical job approval ratings. A CBS News Poll taken early in the week, before all the bad news accumulated, found that 74% of Americans still gave him positive marks for the way he was handling his job.

But the week may mark a turning point for Bush that opens a period of rougher political conflict. Since Sept. 11, Democrats have been reluctant to sharply criticize him for two main reasons: the wartime atmosphere and his high approval ratings. The lofty ratings fed on themselves by discouraging criticism that might have dented the president's standing.

But this week, as chinks opened in Bush's armor, Democrats became much bolder in their challenges to him on both the personal and policy front.

''The people who don't agree with Bush, many of whom had been reluctant to question him ... found out this week you can raise legitimate issues, you can criticize the president and you don't wake up the next morning with a horse's head in your bed,'' said Democratic consultant Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary for President Clinton.

Some Republicans believe the rapidly escalating Democratic rhetoric still risks alienating Americans leery of partisanship in the long shadow of the terrorist attacks.

''The Democrats are ratcheting up the partisan rhetoric, and that's a blunder,'' said GOP pollster David Winston. ''Given this post-Sept. 11 environment, that will be viewed as a negative. People want their problems solved.''

Though White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer on Friday dismissed the turmoil as ''noise about nothing,'' the news this week for Bush, from a political perspective, was almost all bad:

* On Monday, at a White House news conference, Bush was barraged with questions about his 1990 sale of stock in Harken Energy Corp., a company on whose board he sat. Under the intense questioning, Bush at times appeared shaky and unprepared.

* On Tuesday, Bush in his much-anticipated Wall Street speech endorsed new measures to combat securities fraud and reform corporate governance that constituted a sharp turn in direction for an administration that arrived in Washington pledging to reduce federal regulation of business. But the speech was battered by critics, including many in the business world, who said it didn't go far enough. Many analysts portrayed the sharp decline of the stock markets following the address as a vote of no-confidence in the president's response.

* On Wednesday, as if to underscore the sense that Bush had been too cautious, the Senate voted unanimously to pass Democratic-sponsored legislation giving prosecutors new authority to pursue securities fraud. Bush had pointedly declined to endorse that measure in his speech Tuesday.

* On Thursday, Bush awoke to newspaper accounts about the $180,375 in low-interest loans he had received from Harken while serving as a company director--a practice he had urged companies to ban in his Tuesday speech.

* On Friday, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell E. Daniels released figures showing that the government would run a $165-billion deficit this year. That's the first deficit since 1997 and the largest since 1994. Daniels blamed the war on terrorism and the economic slowdown; Democrats immediately fingered the $1.35-trillion tax cut Bush pushed through Congress last year.

For the White House and Democrats alike, the overriding question is whether these developments foreshadow any long-term vulnerability for Bush on either the policy or personal fronts.

On the questions about Bush's business dealings, analysts in both parties don't yet see many signs of damage. Trust in Bush remains substantial; in the CBS survey, nearly three-fifths of those polled said they believed he would do the right thing to prevent business abuses. An equal share said they believed most members of his administration were honest.

''The Democrats are cutting fundamentally against the grain of the perceptions the American people have about this president,'' White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said Friday. ''What [voters] don't buy are these assertions that he is somehow dishonest or untrustworthy.''

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