From Social Security to Terri Schiavo to sinking polls, Bush fights for public faith amid the perils of a second term.
If President Bush wants to lay blame for his slumping public support on immediate events, he has plenty of targets.
There's his brief intervention into the Terri Schiavo case, which a majority of Americans fault. There's his inability thus far to make serious headway on Social Security reform, his top second-term priority. And there's the economy, starting with rising gas and fuel prices and worries over inflation.
Bush advisers, while playing down the latest numbers, tend to fault the recent economic uncertainty. Several major polls have shown Bush's job approval declining into the mid-40s, a drop of 5 to 7 points in just a week - in some cases, at or near an all-time low for his presidency. The latest Gallup Poll also shows the highest public pessimism over the economy in two years, with 33 percent saying it is getting better and 59 percent saying it is getting worse.
Ultimately, though, it may just be that successful second terms for American presidents are historically difficult to pull off, and Bush is now bumping into that perception head on. The politics of second terms are hard to avoid, even for a president whose party controls both houses of Congress. Bush is not running for reelection, but most of his Republican brethren on Capitol Hill are - and they know that the president's party often suffers its greatest defeats in the second-term midterm elections.
"Members of the president's own party get very nervous, because they know the history and they worry that they're tying their ship to an unsteady anchor," says Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist. "And of course, the opposition party is gunning for the next midterm elections, too, so they're generally not in a mood to cooperate."
Bush has raised the stakes by laying out a self-consciously ambitious second-term agenda - not only to reconceptualize Social Security via voluntary partial privatization, but also to remake the tax system and spread democracy throughout the Middle East. It is on that last point - most centrally, Iraq - that Bush's second term will likely be judged. But even the progress in Iraq, starting with the holding of elections, hasn't provided the kind of polling dividends Bush might have expected.