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Stalled on Home Front, Bush Looks Abroad

Experts say the president's renewed focus on foreign policy is typical of second terms.

June 26, 2005|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An early-morning telephone chat with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. A White House lunch with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Dinner with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A group meeting with five African presidents. Another with six Latin American leaders.

With key elements of his domestic agenda stalled and his job-approval ratings sagging, President Bush is turning to a time-honored gambit favored by many of his predecessors in the Oval Office, especially as they moved into second terms: He is devoting more time and energy to international affairs, most visibly by hosting a stream of foreign leaders.

Second-term presidents have historically been frustrated on domestic policy by members of Congress who care more about the next election than the legacy of a lame-duck chief executive -- and who believe voters are more often moved by issues close to home than by foreign policy.

So it's no surprise that second-term presidents tend to focus on foreign policy, said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Invariably, you have more latitude in foreign policy and Congress is less of a factor."

Lawrence R. Jacobs, a presidential historian at the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota, said that in Bush's case, "What he's finding is that his domestic agenda has become a headache -- it's what's keeping him up at night.''

Although a shift away from domestic issues is common in the second term, presidential historians, foreign policy experts and political analysts are struck by how soon the 43rd president has begun to showcase foreign affairs.

"Foreign affairs becomes a refuge for every second-term president as his powers weaken at home," said Harvard University scholar David Gergen, who has advised presidents of both parties.

"What's been a surprise is that typically the window of opportunity is about 18 months, when they can expect to get something done before attention turns to the midterm elections. The window seems to be shutting on Bush much earlier."

For Bush, the shift to foreign affairs goes beyond diverting attention from congressional resistance to such domestic proposals as partially privatizing Social Security. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the stalemate over North Korea's nuclear program and last week's election of a hard-liner in Iran all are demanding more and more of the president's time and attention.

"The world now is producing a daunting set of challenges to the United States," said Haass, a top State Department official until he left the administration in 2003. "So you can almost say whoever is in the Oval Office wouldn't have much choice but to focus on foreign policy."

Recognizing the flagging support for his Iraq policy, the president will travel to Ft. Bragg, N.C., on Tuesday to deliver a prime-time speech outlining his strategy on the conflict.

This month, in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, a majority for the first time disapproved of Bush's job performance. On his handing of Iraq, 41% approved and 58% disapproved.

Although it seems premature to write off Bush's domestic priorities, analysts say that with each passing day his ability to enact his domestic agenda diminishes. With little notice, the president has put off until autumn any action on his plan to change the tax system.

Moreover, although the Republican-controlled Congress has enacted bills this year to limit bankruptcy filings and curtail class-action lawsuits, it has dealt Bush numerous setbacks. Defying the president, the House passed a measure that would halve U.S. dues to the United Nations if the world body did not make changes. The chamber also voted against Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. In the Senate, Democrats continue to block a confirmation vote on John R. Bolton, his nominee to be U.N. ambassador.

Ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, another Bush priority, remains uncertain, as do immigration and energy legislation.

Above all, key Republicans in both houses are still wary about creating personal retirement accounts, the president's organizing principle for overhauling Social Security. Though he continues to push his privatization plan, the number of Social Security events he is staging around the country has begun to drop: nine in February, 12 in March, six in April, five in May and four in June.

"He's running into such a roadblock in domestic policy," said Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington. "And it's very tough for second-term presidents to make a comeback in domestic policy. When presidents have come back in second terms, it's been in foreign policy."

Since May, Bush has met with three dozen foreign leaders and consulted with many others by telephone.

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