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Jewish World Review July 25, 2001 / 5 Meanchem-Av 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Bush must convert good polls into clout -- LAST week's polls suggest that President Bush isn't in such bad political shape after all. But his agenda on Capitol Hill seems to be.

The White House doesn't buy this pessimistic outlook, nor do GOP leaders in Congress. They say that parts of Bush's energy policy, faith-based initiative and trade agenda will get through the House before the August recess, keeping his policy momentum going.

House GOP leaders even believe a Bush-style patients' bill of rights has a chance of getting more votes than the lawyer-friendly proposal he opposes.

What all this indicates is that top House Republicans -- having put campaign finance-reform legislation to rest, if not to death -- are ready once again to advance Bush's agenda.

However, a closer look indicates that Bush still has a lot of selling to do to persuade the public -- and through it, the Senate -- to allow his programs to prevail.

Energy, missile defense, the faith initiative, Medicare reform -- all face fierce Democratic opposition. Even if it passes the House, the agenda is not likely to get through the Democratic Senate.

In fact, there's even trouble in the House. GOP leaders acknowledge that only expansion of tax deductions for religious charities will pass, not federal aid for them.

Republicans oppose offshore gas-and-oil exploration. And conservatives are calling Bush's defense budget inadequate.

The weakening stock market and soft economy also threaten the president's Social Security reform plans and raise serious doubts about whether he can balance his budget without dipping into Medicare and Social Security reserves.

The White House claims the media willfully ignored the top-rated, private, blue-chip forecast that the economy would recover in the fourth quarter of this year, largely thanks to Bush's tax cut.

On the other hand, there are storm clouds on the world economic horizon, from Argentina to Japan, which could cause a decline in U.S. exports and throw the economy into a recession.

One canny political analyst, Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, commented that -- good polls notwithstanding -- the President "has not made a personal connection with the American people."

Part of the problem is that Bush hasn't been given the opportunity for a "defining moment," such as Ronald Reagan's cheerful survival of an assassination attempt or Bill Clinton's eloquence after the Oklahoma City bombing.

Instead, Sabato observed, Bush has allowed Democrats and the media to define him as a conservative ideologue who's too close to big business and indifferent to ordinary people. "If the economy is good, he'll do OK" in the 2002 and 2004 elections, Sabato said in an interview. "But in bad times, these impressions are deadly, as Bush's father found out."

In Sabato's opinion, Bush's agenda "has run out of steam. He did get 80 percent of his tax cut -- just in time. But even his education plan is bogged down.

"The Republicans are trying to develop a new six-month plan, but if they can't succeed, they'll be controlled by events. Bush needs an updraft. If he doesn't get one, he'll get caught in a downdraft."

Still, the new Gallup and Fox News-Opinion Dynamics polls indicate that he has a lot of underlying popular support going for him, which ought to give him an opportunity to persuade the public to follow his lead.

The two polls paint a very different picture from the one conveyed in the widely publicized New York Times-CBS poll last month, which showed sagging approval ratings and serious doubts about the President's standing as a leader.

Bush's job-approval rating, 53 percent, was down 4 points from a poll in May, and voters registered sharp disapproval of his ideas on energy and the environment, as well as his international leadership.

It's hard to know whether the new result represents an uptick in Bush's fortunes or inaccuracy in one poll or another.

However, the July 10-11 Gallup poll found that 57 percent of voters approved of his job performance. Fifty-six percent approved in the Fox News poll.

Both surveys showed high personal favorability scores (61 percent in the Fox poll, 70 percent in Gallup). Both polls also revealed that the president fares well on personal characteristics.

Gallup found that 69 percent found him tough enough for the job, 66 percent said he is honest and trustworthy, 57 percent called him a strong leader, 57 percent said he cares about the needs of "people like you" and 56 percent said he "shares your values."

On the negative side, Gallup found that two-thirds of Americans said big business has too much influence in his administration, and by a 50-percent-to-47-percent margin, they said Bush is out of touch with the problems faced by ordinary people.

The bottom line here seems to be that there's great goodwill out there in the country for Bush and even for what he's trying to do. But he needs to be a better salesman to get his agenda through Congress -- and hope that the U.S. economy recovers in time to pull the world out of its doldrums.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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