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As Bush sinks in polls, he tries new directions

The president works to improve his image on patients' rights, the environment, energy and peace in the Mideast.

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2001


The president works to improve his image on patients' rights, the environment, energy and peace in the Mideast.

WASHINGTON -- While every new president promises to follow principle rather than public opinion polls, few have kept that pledge as faithfully as George W. Bush.

In his early months as president, Bush persuaded Congress to enact a tax cut that was not initially very popular with Americans. He declined public pressure to get involved in Middle East peace talks; he took unpopular stands on environmental issues; he resisted efforts to clamp down on rising energy prices.

But no politician can ignore public opinion for long. And when Bush's own popularity began to sink in the polls in recent weeks, he quickly began showing more sensitivity to public opinion.

Today, he is clearly more conciliatory with Democrats in Congress, more willing to intervene in the Middle East, more outspoken about preserving the environment and less reluctant to clamp down on energy prices.

Of course, Bush insists he is no less wary of polls.

"He still won't govern by polls," says White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. "He's aware of them, but he doesn't lead by the polls. He leads by what he thinks is right for America."

But many analysts say Bush's governing style has shifted so dramatically in his quest for public approval that it seems almost as if he had launched a new administration.

"It's as if we've watched the first George W. Bush presidency yield to the second George W. Bush presidency in just six months," observed presidential scholar Stephen Hess. "He does seem to be tacking back to where the polls are."

Hess, who works for the Brookings Institution, a Washington think thank, thinks the transformation in the president can be attributed to two things: Bush is slowly learning how to be a successful president, and he sees a need to be more conciliatory because the Senate is now controlled by Democrats, who are using their new status to underscore where Bush differs from the majority of Americans.

Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., agrees with Hess that the president has successfully scaled a steep learning curve since he entered the White House last January.

"For any president who's been through a long election campaign, they naturally feel they have an obligation to carry out their campaign promises in their original form," Graham said. "Then it suddenly dawns on them that this is not a monarchy with one-person rule, and that realization allows them to look for ways to accommodate other views."

As Republicans see it, says GOP pollster David Winston, Bush finally has found his political voice.

"At first, he talked about problems strictly in terms of policy," Winston observed. "But over time, he has successfully developed into the 'compassionate conservative' that he wanted to be."

White House officials insist they are not worried that Bush's approval rating fell as low as 50 percent in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published Thursday. But insiders say they are hoping the president's new strategy will help boost his popularity.

The first big test of Bush's more conciliatory governing style will be the results of negotiations between the White House and Congress on a so-called patients' bill of rights. The president, who spent much of last week trying to craft a compromise acceptable to both parties, threatened to veto the version passed by the Senate on Friday night.

Bush supports a House version of the measure that restricts the right to sue, but Fleischer noted that the president agreed with much of what the Senate Democrats had proposed.

Winston explains that Bush is searching for a solution because he knows a majority of Americans want a patients' bill of rights that gives them an opportunity to appeal the health care decisions of their HMOs. As Winston sees it, Bush will benefit politically from enactment of any patients' rights bill, no matter how Congress resolves the issues that are dividing Democrats and Republicans.

"What people say is, 'I just want the health care that I pay for and that my doctor wants me to have,' " Winston said.

Of all the alterations Bush has made in recent weeks, however, none has been as dramatic as his efforts to negotiate a new cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians.

During his campaign for the presidency, Bush said repeatedly that he did not intend to be as involved in trying to settle foreign conflicts as President Bill Clinton had. Even during his last few days in the White House, Bush's predecessor was still meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to secure a permanent peace agreement.

In his second election debate with Democrat Al Gore on Oct. 11, Bush vowed that he would never try to impose a settlement framework on the parties in the Middle East.

"I think when it comes to timetables," he said, "it can't be a United States timetable as to how the discussions take place."

But with his poll numbers dropping while violence was escalating in the Middle East, Bush last week dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell there.

Joshua Muravchik, resident foreign policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says Bush had little choice but to intervene as he did.

"The Middle East peace process was an American baby," he said. "As the whole thing snowballs . . . I suppose there's a feeling that this could be a big embarrassment for the United States."

With experience, Muravchik added, Bush has also learned the political value of getting involved in high-profile diplomacy.

"Presidents learn there's not a better platform for looking presidential than the world stage," he said.

Even so, Muravchik said he was surprised that the president described his intervention as the natural next step in a "peace process" he had previously refused to embrace.

Likewise, on energy policy, the president appears to be taking a new tack.

Initially, Bush put forth a long-term program to increase energy supplies and rejected Democratic pressure for price caps on electricity in the Western states. Vice President Dick Cheney dismissed energy conservation as nothing more than "a personal virtue."

More recently, however, Bush has supported a decision by his appointees on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to impose some controls on electricity prices in the West. And his new energy security plan emphasizes conservation.

Democrats say Bush is responding to polls showing his original stance on energy prices caused him to be viewed as a "president for the oil companies" -- an impression that Democrats gleefully tried to reinforce.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said last week that the president would never have supported the Energy Regulatory Commission if the Democrats had not "been out there day after day describing what we thought was a necessary policy for temporary price caps in order to avert an economic emergency on the West Coast."

Actually, the first change in Bush's attitude toward public opinion polls appears to have occurred in response to charges he was anti-environment. Even when the president's overall approval rating was much higher than it is now, his early decisions affecting greenhouse gases and arsenic levels in water were viewed unfavorably by a majority of Americans.

To improve his image on environmental issues, Bush has been visiting national parks regularly, and he emphasized during his recent trip to Europe that he favors steps to reduce global warming. Critics call it Bush's "green-washing" campaign.

Yet even though Bush's political opponents are prone to belittling his efforts to bolster his popularity, everyone acknowledges that most presidents go through a similar transformation during their first year in office.

In fact, as Hess notes, none of Bush's setbacks to date in the polls has been as devastating to him as the damage Clinton suffered during his first few months in office over the issue of gays in the military.

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