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Bush's Agenda Loses Focus

The White House staff has failed to formulate a clear domestic policy, some in the GOP say, and the administration is suffering because of it.

March 19, 2006|Peter Wallsten and James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A growing Republican chorus is calling for a staff overhaul inside President Bush's beleaguered White House, but some conservatives say such a change would stop far short of fixing what they view as a serious flaw: an unfocused domestic agenda.

The war in Iraq is dominating the attention of Bush and his top aides, these critics say, while the recent departure of the president's top domestic policy advisor after just one year has left the White House without an obvious conductor to direct the sometimes disparate policy-making machine.

"You mean they have a domestic policy?" quipped Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Tanner, an author of the failed Social Security plan that was Bush's No. 1 domestic priority last year, lamented the lack of a "policy czar" setting clear goals. He described the administration as "exhausted" and "rudderless" on the domestic front.

"There doesn't seem to be an endpoint for what they're doing," he said. "They need to decide what they're going to do for the next three years.... Staff changes are necessary but not sufficient. If they're just rearranging chairs and office plaques, that's not going to do anything."

Although Bush first campaigned on a largely domestic agenda, experts either said he had achieved much of what he had set out to accomplish or said he had put aside priorities at home to devote time, energy and government resources to the war on terrorism.

His once-sweeping ideas of giving every young worker a private retirement account as part of Social Security and completely rewriting the tax code have been sharply scaled back. On healthcare, with prices rising and tens of millions of uninsured, Bush's major ideas are creating tax-advantaged health savings accounts and computerizing medical records, hardly the broad overhaul sought by many advocates.

Michael Petrilli, who left the Department of Education in 2005 after four years working on school choice issues, said the administration never settled on an education agenda after Bush's No Child Left Behind Act passed in his first term.

One idea buried in Bush's proposed budget would spend $100 million on a national school voucher program. The proposal might appeal to conservatives still angry over some big-spending elements of the No Child Left Behind plan, but experts said it stood little chance of winning support this year in Congress.

Moreover, the proposed American Competitiveness Initiative laid out in Bush's State of the Union address, aimed at boosting math and science education, has not yet gained traction.

"There doesn't seem to be much of an education agenda right now coming out of this administration," said Petrilli, who is now vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which advocates for school choice programs.

"It's hard to tell what the agenda's going to be for the next couple of years."

The competitiveness initiative was perhaps the most far-reaching new domestic idea in the State of the Union speech, encouraging innovation by putting renewed emphasis on teaching math and science. But, critics say, the push has come from a few lawmakers -- not from the White House.

"Somebody really needs to steer it if it's going to happen, but the sense at this moment is that nobody's really steering it," said one GOP lobbyist who works closely with the administration on education issues but spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution from the White House.

Such frustration among domestic policy advocates underscores the range of problems facing Bush. Sixteen months after reelection, his second term has so far been dominated by a drumbeat of controversy and crises involving a range of issues, including ongoing violence in Iraq, the administration's domestic wiretapping program and an Arab firm's bid to manage operations at several U.S. ports.

Bush is facing the lowest approval ratings of his presidency, in the low to mid-30s.

In one independent survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a plurality of respondents used the word "incompetent" when asked to describe Bush. In previous polls, the most common word had been "honest."

The ports controversy exposed festering tensions between the White House and once-pliant GOP lawmakers, who rebelled against Bush's push for the Arab firm to manage port operations. Many of those lawmakers are feeling increasingly free to express frustration about the administration's tendency to keep Congress in the dark on important issues.

Many conservatives have openly criticized key Bush initiatives in recent weeks, including a Medicare prescription drug program launched this year has proved complicated, costly and confusing to many seniors.

Last week, several longtime White House allies in the Senate joined with moderate Republicans and Democrats to support allowing the government to lengthen the sign-up period for the drug benefit and to negotiate cut-rate prices with drug companies.

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