A Tough Week for a New President

James Zogby’s Column

This was a difficult week for President George W. Bush. On the domestic front the President lost two important votes in the U.S. Senate, while confronting his first major foreign policy challenge with China.

As expected, Bush’s Senate problems came from both Democrats and members of his own Republican Party. Early last week, a group of 12 Republicans joined a nearly unanimous Democratic bloc to pass a campaign finance reform bill. While there are many more rounds to go and final passage of the legislation cannot be guaranteed, this first vote represented a blow for Bush. Like most of his party, he has long opposed the measures proposed in the bill, on principle. The fact that the reform measure bears the name of the President’s 2000 Republican primary rival, Senator John McCain, makes its passage an especially bitter pill.

McCain, a Republican maverick, came close to upending Bush early in the 2000 contest. While he later endorsed the Republican victor and campaigned for Bush, relations have remained quite cold between the White House and McCain’s camp. With some Republicans fearing that McCain might challenge Bush’s reelection effort in 2004, they have sought to rebuke his influence in Washington.

All of this has only served to further embolden the freethinking and independent Arizona Senator. He was determined to pass his signature campaign reform legislation despite White House opposition. And last week in a critical first vote it passed by a large 59 to 41 margin. His smiling face on the front page New York Times told the story: a McCain victory and a Bush defeat.

Equally troubling for the new President was a defeat last week for his tax reduction proposal.

The vote came on an amendment that passed by a 53-47 margin. The amendment in question called for reducing by one-third Bush’s proposed $1.6 billion tax cut. The Democratic proposal shifted about $500 million to new spending on education and paying back the national debt.

It was, in fact, more of a setback than a defeat that can be reversed in later votes. But when combined with the passage of the campaign finance reform vote, it marked the fact that Bush may be in danger of losing control of the legislative agenda to an amazing coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats.

Of course, the President can still recover. He still has strong allies in the Congress who will fight both for his tax cut and against McCain’s reform bill. And he retains the position that enables him to shape the public debate on his agenda. But, at present, the President appears to lack strong public support on both fronts.

Polls show that while campaign finance reform is not a high voter priority, it is strongly supported. More significantly, the public remains enamored with Senator John McCain, whose popularity is greater than that of the President. In fact a recent Zogby poll asked, “if a dispute occurred between McCain and President Bush, whose side would you support?” The public chose McCain by a large 11 percent margin.

So too, on the issue of tax cuts, public opinion remains unconvinced. They support cuts, but not as large as those the President is proposing and not at the expense of spending on needed programs or reducing the national debt.

And so on the domestic and legislative front Bush has his hands full, still working to defeat his foes and establish his mandate.

To further complicate matters for the new President, last week brought a potentially debilitating foreign policy challenge in the form of a standoff with China. The crash of a U.S. reconnaissance plane with a Chinese military aircraft presented Bush with a multi-pronged problem.

During the 2000 campaign, Bush challenged the Clinton Administration’s handling of both China and Russia. They argued that the Democrats had been soft in their dealings with both countries and had overlooked the problems that they presented to U.S. allies and strategic interests. Sounding, at times, like a cold-war redux, the Republicans promised to take a harder line against both countries promising to treat them more as potential adversaries than as “strategic allies.”

While some of this was dismissed as campaign rhetoric, the Administration’s early behavior points to a real shift in policy. The expulsion of 50 Russian diplomats and this current standoff with China has some Republicans concerned.

It was the new President’s father who is most identified with the U.S.’s open door to China and rapprochement with Russia. This approach has been favored by more moderate, business-oriented Republicans who see great benefits in a trade and engagement policy. They have been opposed by more conservative hawks who have supported a more confrontational handling of the two countries.

The current situation, China’s holding of 24 U.S. military personnel and a U.S. plane, coupled with the Chinese demand that the United States apologize for its role in the crash and loss of life of a Chinese pilot, therefore, challenges President Bush on three levels.

First, he is faced with a public test of his leadership in a foreign policy crisis. There are a few critics who have suggested that the President should have apologized to the Chinese immediately and ended the situation as soon as possible. But majority opinion, among both the public at large and the bipartisan political leadership, gives the President’s performance to date, high marks. An interesting side note here is the determination of the White House to deny that the new President has consulted either with his father or his father’s National Security Advisor during this crisis. This may change, but appears to reflect a desire to cast the new President as “his own man.”

His initially tough, then more measured response to this China crisis is borne of the need to balance pressures from within his own party. There is a clear need to appear both “fair and resolved,” while at the same time not unnecessarily provocative and confrontational.

Finally, the President must be concerned that this crisis not overburden his domestic agenda. It will not serve him well to become, this early in his term, entangled in a long drawn out confrontation with China. At the same time, it would hurt Bush if he were to become so distracted by this crisis that he loses control of the legislative agenda on which he has so far defined his presidency.

In the end, of course, Bush will be judged by the outcome of this standoff. A successful resolution may enhance his stature and raise his domestic standing (which last week fell in one poll to a low 49 percent). A less clear result could be very damaging. It would weaken his presidency, bring internal conflict within his own party, cost the president support in Congress and even bring about other challenges both at home and abroad.