Bush has lost control of the agenda

The headlines after President Bush’s recent press conference blared that he was struggling to prove he was still relevant. Which raises the question: If it waddles like a lame duck and quacks like a lame duck, is it a lame duck? Or put another way, has Bush, who was extremely successful at getting his legislative agenda through Congress in his first term, succumbed to secondtermitis?

The headlines after President Bush’s recent press conference blared that he was struggling to prove he was still relevant. Which raises the question: If it waddles like a lame duck and quacks like a lame duck, is it a lame duck? Or put another way, has Bush, who was extremely successful at getting his legislative agenda through Congress in his first term, succumbed to secondtermitis?

While Sept. 11 and foreign policy were in the forefront of the first Bush term, Bush was also a legislative president, almost a prime minister of sorts in his ability to unite his party in Congress and push his agenda into law.

Bush is said to have learned a negative lesson from his father’s presidency, that when you have political capital you should spend it. Where Bush 41 saw his post-Gulf War approval ratings plummet from 90 percent to 30 percent in part because he was not seen as having a domestic agenda, Bush 43 used every bump in his job-approval ratings to go to Congress to pass more legislation.

Bush’s initial “honeymoon” period spawned tax cuts and education reform. Sept. 11 led to a number of anti-terror measures. The surprising Republican gain in the midterm elections forced action on the Bush plan for a Department of Homeland Security and a dividend-tax cut. And the boost in the president’s popularity at the start of the Iraq war led to a Medicare prescription-drug benefit.

Bush has had remarkable success in keeping Congress focused on his agenda, and there have been few periods of time between his foreign-policy moves and his domestic legislative priorities that he did not seem to be in charge. So it is not surprising that after Bush’s bigger-than-expected victory and congressional gains in 2004 he would claim a mandate and push for two long-standing items on his agenda: Social Security reform and fundamental tax reform.

So why has Bush lost some of his luster on Capitol Hill?

Democrats are more united, perhaps because of the Bush strategy of seeking mostly Republican votes but also because of differences over Iraq and the lingering conflict from a high-stakes election in the fall. There have also been retirements of key moderates, which have made the parties in Congress even more polarized.

But the main reason for Bush’s difficulties is that he has lost control of the legislative agenda, and that has much to do with his Social Security plan.

Social Security reform is a project of enormous scale and a long timeframe. If the president had been able to push for Social Security reform shortly after the election, get initial congressional action on the Hill within a couple of months and sign a bill by midyear, then we would all be talking about the president’s agenda. But instead we waited through a period of selling the plan to the public while hearing discordant voices from the president’s party on the Hill, and today, even by the most optimistic scenario, we are months away from significant votes on the president’s plan.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does Congress, and the time that could have been spent debating the president’s plan was filled with Terri Schiavo and judicial filibusters. Those issues may help or hurt the president with certain constituencies, but most importantly they take our eye away from the big item that the president wants to pursue.

This loss of control of the agenda is especially harmful to President Bush because he is generally seen as a strong and decisive leader by the American people, even by many who strongly disagree with him.

Now it is true that Congress has addressed a number of smaller Bush priorities, such as tort and bankruptcy reform, and the 109th could be a productive Congress with passage of a highway bill and an energy bill. It is also true that Bush’s job approval has slipped only slightly and that it would not take much to move him from the mid-40s to the mid-50s, leaving him in a much stronger position. Finally, if the president does succeed in passing a substantial Social Security reform package in the next year, most will forget about this time at sea. But until that happens or the president is able to retake control of Congress’s agenda, we will compare his second term unfavorably to his first.

All second-term presidents face difficulties, especially with members of Congress who will have to face reelection in the future when the president will not. But Bush’s rough patch in Congress is not primarily the result of some magical forces or trends that doom second-term presidents.

His problems are his own making because he has lost control of the legislative agenda. This may not be much comfort to the administration, but it does indicate that the ship could be righted. The duck is not so much lame as it has lost its way.

Fortier is a research fellow and executive director of the Continuity of Government Commission at the American Enterprise Institute.