Published October 25, 2002
WASHINGTON – Heading into midterm elections that often bode poorly for the president's political party, President George W. Bush has managed to stave off skeptics and has stayed above 60 percent in approval ratings for over a year.
Many say it's because of demonstrated leadership in the face of a new national threat.
"The approval ratings are far more an artifact of the post-Sept. 11 environment, his emergence as a leader," said Norm Ornstein, political analyst for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
"He's had enough successes that, combined with the Sept. 11 period, he's seen as a winner and that helps him enormously," Ornstein added.
But the president has also managed to finagle quite a few legislative victories in a Congress many have dismissed as bitter, partisan and ready to rumble.
In the last two years, Bush has pushed through fast-track trade authority, the "No Child Left Behind" education act, the anti-terrorism Patriot Act, a 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut and authority to wage war against Iraq if dictator Saddam Hussein does not meet demands for disarmament.
These are all considered victories, but not everyone is willing to give Bush a slap on the back.
"Bush had a slim domestic agenda when he took office, and because of 9/11, he has managed to avoid a number of domestic issues," said Shirley Anne Warshaw of the Council of Scholars at the Center for the Study of the Presidency.
Some also question whether the president's legislative successes will have the impact intended by the president once they are fully implemented.
"Some of these victories are quite substantial -- fast track, for example," said Stephen Hess, a governmental studies expert with the Brookings Institution.
Trade Promotion Authority, also know as fast track, passed Congress this summer. The bill gives the president the power to negotiate bilateral trade agreements and bring them to Congress for a strictly up or down vote. President Clinton lost that authority in 1994 and was never able to regain it.
"The real success lies in whether he gets up, rather than down votes on the agreements he wants," Hess said.
That success could depend on opponents in Congress who, concerned about Congress' diminished power to debate trade deals that will impact American workers and the environment could prevent Bush from achieving the objectives he sought through the legislation.
Nor did everyone agree with the tax cut, which proponents say returned money into the hands of Americans, stunting what could have been an expanded economic downturn. Critics blame the cut for increasing deficits and creating the current budget squeeze.
"The tax cuts really have led us towards more deficits … not disastrous in and of themselves, but it has led us into fiscal impasses because we know that there are huge spending commitments ahead," including billions for the war on terror, said Ornstein. "The jury is out on whether it will all work."
Other so-called victories, said Hess, have occurred because Bush has effectively neutralized polarizing issues. "Despite the heavy dose of partisanship and vitriol in the city at this time, the other victories have been bipartisan."
By the time the sweeping education bill was passed in January, for example, Democrats had a hand in plenty of its provisions. Cato Institute political analyst John Samples said that the bill mainly threw close to $30 billion to the states.
The Patriot Act also gained bipartisan support, passing 337-79 in the House and 98-1 in the Senate. While it appeared a victory for Bush when it passed last year, critics still wonder loudly and frequently whether broadened police powers will enhance national security or pinch civil liberties.
"In the fall of 2001, the polls indicated that people were more willing to trade off their civil liberties for security, but in the spring, the polls went right back to pre-Sept. 11 numbers," said Samples. "People are simply not making the connection between something that happened a year ago and a bill from which the consequences are still unknown."
The same goes for the president’s resolution on Iraq, which despite much wrangling, was still supported by a majority of Democrats.
If anything, opponents could criticize the president for failing to get approval for a comprehensive energy bill that would have authorized oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But, experts say voters don't judge a president on that type of legislation.
"That’s not a bill that moves thousands and thousands of people," said Samples.
Either way, Hess said that Bush has proven himself not by his legislative scores, but by the confidence he inspires as commander-in-chief.
"Here was a person who had never been involved in federal government ... and was someone not too articulate on the issues," Hess said. "Two years later … I think most Americans can feel comfortable with him, that he is a leader and can work the Washington corridors and the Washington scene."
Most agree, however, that Bush won’t be carrying very wide coattails for members of Congress and gubernatorial candidates come Election Day.
"He may have an effect in a few places, one being Florida," said American University political science professor Richard Semiatin. Bush's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush is running for re-election in Florida, a state that some suggest the president avoid so as not to dredge up memories of the disputed 2000 presidential election.