Iraq, Economy Threaten Bush’s Run of Victories

Posted September 8, 2005 at 2:33pm

A late flurry of legislative successes have helped President Bush build a robust record of victories during the first nine months of his second term, but even allies acknowledge his legislative accomplishments continue to be overshadowed by the war in Iraq, rising gas prices and his sagging approval ratings with the American people.

So far this year, Bush has pushed for and won enactment of big-ticket items such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement, a sweeping $11.5 billion energy bill, a $286 billion highway funding measure, a rewrite of bankruptcy laws and a measure to limit class-action lawsuits. However, lawmakers and academics insist that Bush’s enviable successes on Capitol Hill have had little effect on either his own or Congress’ approval ratings, largely because those measures appear unrelated to the issues that most Americans say have the greatest day-to-day impact on them.

“To the average man and woman out there, the things that affect their life is the price of gasoline, the cost of health care, the quality of education,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said in a recent interview.

Stephen Hess, a George Washington University professor of media and public affairs, noted that the minutiae that Congress deals with on a daily basis has little to no effect on the perception of Bush as an effective president.

“I don’t know if Congressional actions are things likely to make a difference in the public opinion,” Hess said.

Still, Bush has enjoyed one of the highest presidential success scores of any president, according to data compiled by Congressional Quarterly.

For the first four years of his presidency, Bush enjoyed a legislative success score between 72 percent and 87 percent, and he appears to be on track for a similar record this year, although those numbers have yet to be crunched. Meanwhile, Republican President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) had a rapidly dwindling success rate, starting at 66 percent in 1984 and falling to 60 percent in 1985, 56 percent in 1986, 43 percent in 1987 and 47 percent in 1988. Democratic President Bill Clinton (1993-2001) began his re-election year, 1996, with a 55 percent success rate in Congress, which fell to 53 percent in 1997, then to 38 percent in 1998, before rising back up to 55 percent in 2000.

On the flip side of his legislative successes, Bush’s approval ratings had sunk to a mere 40 percent by the end of August, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll. Meanwhile, Reagan and Clinton posted approval ratings of 57 percent and 60 percent, respectively, during the first nine months of their second terms, according to Gallup polls.

Lawmakers and academics agreed that despite having Congress controlled by fellow Republicans, the public’s perception of Bush’s presidency is viewed primarily through the prism of the war in Iraq and the perception — despite some economic data to the contrary — that the economy is lagging.

While Bush has been saddled with doubts about the economic health of the nation and rising skepticism about Iraq, “Reagan and Clinton enjoyed the fruits of good economic conditions in times of peace,” noted Vanderbilt University professor of modern history Thomas Schwartz.

“The overriding issue in this term as well as the last term has been the war on terror. … That has really sapped time and money,” noted Lott, who overall gave Bush “pretty good grades” for his ability to push his agenda through Congress.

Schwartz agreed, adding, “All things are going to get harder for him unless he can turn things around in Iraq.”

Schwartz said the focus on the war has detracted from his ability to take credit for domestic accomplishments, but made his victories on Capitol Hill more noteworthy.

“The accomplishments that he does have haven’t come as easily for Bush,” Schwartz said.

Though Bush’s legislative success list this year is significant, Lott noted that most of Bush’s accomplishments have been in the Congressional pipeline for his entire presidency, and in some instances, even longer. For example, Congressional Republicans have been pushing a stricter bankruptcy code for about eight years, only to see success this spring. Similarly, the energy and highway bills — both of which passed at the end of July — had languished in Congress for five and three years, respectively. CAFTA, a more recent priority for Bush, also passed in July.

“He finally eked them across the finish line,” Lott said. “The flurry of activity [in July] kind of saved him. Until then, [the record] was a little paltry.”

Clinton and Reagan, by comparison, did not have a laundry list of accomplishments to tout during the first year of their second terms.

Noteworthy for Clinton in that span were his success in securing passage of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, along with a targeted middle class tax cut known as the Taxpayers Relief Act of 1997, both of which passed shortly after the Democrat won re-election. Faced with strong opposition from a Republican-controlled Congress, Clinton was forced for most of his second term to rely on his ability to issue executive orders and have the White House guide the writing of regulations to fulfill portions of his agenda on the environment and civil rights.

As his second term churns on, Bush may have to resort to “some of Clinton’s tactics” to enact his own agenda, noted James Thurber, director of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

A rash of White House aide resignations in 1985, on the other hand, dogged Reagan after his landslide re-election, making it impossible for him to quickly pass his major tax reform initiative that year. Indeed, during this period of Reagan’s presidency, critics were calling his tax bill dead on arrival. Like Reagan’s tax reform proposal, Bush’s push to overhaul Social Security has vexed Congressional leaders almost since the day he won a second term, despite House GOP leaders’ vow to hold a vote on a measure this fall.

“It’s the one big thing that he has stumped for, pushed for, that has not moved,” Lott said. “There’s no question that it’s stalled. I don’t see it being done before next year’s election. I don’t see how you get it.”

But if Reagan’s experience were any lesson, it would be unwise to discount Bush’s Social Security agenda too soon. Despite the gloomy forecast for its prospects, Reagan finally pushed through his Tax Reform Act of 1986 just days before voters gave the Senate majority back to Democrats.