Lightning Twice

George W. Bush's presidency is looking a lot like his father's. The same people serve in his administration, another economic downturn has hit American workers and Iraq is again the target of a U.S. military campaign.

Add another similarity to the list: George W. Bush is likely to be a one-term president, just like his father. That's because his high public-approval ratings are tied to his role as commander in chief, not to how he's performing the rest of his presidential duties. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll in March contained some revealing evidence of this. Bush's approval ratings on his handling of Iraq and foreign affairs are high, at 71 percent and 64 percent, respectively. But his poll numbers on the economy, taxes and the federal budget deficit all hover around 50 percent.

What's particularly telling is that while his foreign-policy approval ratings have jumped in the last couple of months (approval of his handling of Iraq was just 54 percent in early February, before the war started), his numbers on domestic issues have stayed constant. (Forty-nine percent of those surveyed approved of his tax policies in mid-January compared with 52 percent now.) This shows that support for Bush on international issues -- the rally-'round-the-flag effect that benefits every president in wartime -- hasn't translated to domestic matters. And the numbers signal that he'll likely continue to have problems after the war is over.

That, of course, is what happened to his father in 1991. As soon as the ticker-tape parades ended, attention turned to the recession back home and Bush Senior's artificially high approval ratings plummeted. For much of the younger Bush's presidency, the public hasn't been focused on traditional domestic issues but on recovering from September 11 and following the worsening situation in Iraq. That gave Bush a pass from criticism related to his agenda here at home. After all, before 9-11, Bush's approval ratings were at about 50 percent -- largely because of what he wanted to do on the domestic front.

But in recent weeks, Senate Democrats -- perhaps sensing an opening prior to an election that some political observers have already written off to Bush (another similarity to 1992) -- have started turning up the heat. Senate Republicans have tried, and failed, four times to end a filibuster over Miguel Estrada, Bush's nominee for a federal appeals court seat.

Then there's the issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It's the central plank of Bush's energy platform, and he'd even urged Congress to pass it on the basis of national security. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, added his own weight to the issue by telling lawmakers he'd remember those who opposed the bill. Still, it failed by a vote of 52-to-48. The House plans to bring it back soon, but the Senate vote was a slap in the face to a supposedly popular president.

Another bad turn for Bush came when the Senate decided to slash his tax cut in half. Now, in a time of war, even a $1 tax cut wouldn't be prudent (to use his father's famous phrase). While Bush was able to push through his $1.35 trillion cut in his first six months in office (thanks to GOP control of Congress and his own use of a lot of political capital), Bush would be better off saving his political chits for an issue that enjoys wider support among the American public. If he thinks the public isn't bothered by his deficit policies, he's wrong: Forty-five percent of those surveyed disapprove of his approach, the same number that supports it, according to the poll.

Not surprisingly, the Republican-dominated House has pledged to back the president on these measures. It's in the Senate where Bush has failed to shore up support from moderate Republicans, a lesson he should have learned when Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) left the GOP two years ago. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) recently told The New York Times that he couldn't think of one area where he agreed with the president. That's not a good sign for Bush in a chamber where every vote really does count.

It's a long time until election day, but if Bush doesn't convince both the public and Congress that his domestic plans will set the country back on the right course, he could well become the second President Bush to serve just a single term.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.

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