Bush Domestic Agenda Stalled by Three Issues: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq

With negative approval ratings rivaling those of Jimmy Carter in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis and of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, President Bush will push a domestic agenda tonight that may never see the light of day.

Political experts from all sides say that all three hot-button issues -- health care, global warming and immigration -- will likely face resistance and not resuscitate an ailing presidency.

Heavy on Americans' minds are three other key issues -- Iraq, Iraq and Iraq.

"It's the giant issue that seemingly overwhelms everything else," said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "The caveat is that Iraq might cloud out all the other issues and so poison the atmosphere that Congress doesn't do anything else."

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A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released Monday found that 34 percent of respondents approved of Bush's job performance, while 63 percent disapproved. Two-thirds said they were angry with the president.

Surveys show that Carter received a 26 percent approval rating in 1979, and Nixon had an even lower rating (24 percent) in August 1974, just before he resigned.

Focus on Domestic Issues

Tonight, viewers will see a starkly different tableau as they watch the State of the Union address. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., takes the seat behind Bush. Pelosi has sharply criticized Bush's handling of the war.

With low approval ratings, the president will struggle to make compromises with Congress on any one of his domestic issues. "I think all of them actually have a shot at bipartisan support but not in the form he'd like," said Ornstein.

Bush's plan for health care reform is the most contentious and has fired up the health care industry, AARP and the trade unions.

The administration has outlined a plan under which those with expensive health care plans would pay higher taxes, with revenues going toward tax incentives to allow lower income Americans to afford health coverage.

The Bush plan intends to also help states provide health care coverage to the uninsured by changing tax policies and diverting federal aid from public hospitals. Families could deduct up to $15,000 and individuals could deduct $7,500 for health care expenses. Companies would also be taxed for providing health care plans.

The provision is likely to draw loud criticism from municipalities across the nation and from trade unions, which fear companies could drop gold-plated insurance plans because they are taxed.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Ornstein. "What matters most is they are willing to take up the issue and then there is a lot of room to maneuver."

"As someone who has been self-employed all my life, I like the idea of expanding health care," said conservative syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher. "But I don't think Bush can afford to turn his attention away from Iraq. It's late in the game, and he needs to tell us why it is vital to American interests. Is the cost worth the effort? A lot of good things could be done in health care, but frankly, Iraq is the dominating issue."

Still, Gallagher, who voted for Bush twice, has doubts about the Democrats. "I don't trust them in the way they are driven by politics," she said. "They don't inspire confidence in me."

Democratic Wake-Up Call

Critics like Howard Dean, chairman of the National Democratic Committee, counter that Bush is not serious about fixing the nation's health care system.

"This administration has ignored the problem for six years," Dean said in a statement. "Costs and the number of uninsured continue to skyrocket, yet the president's solution is to raise taxes on working families? Like so much of what the president proposes, this latest scheme fails to address the problem and actually makes health care less affordable for many Americans, while doing nothing to help insure those who cannot afford it."

The picture may not be as bleak for Bush on immigration reform, which reached fever pitch in Congress last year with legislation to construct a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border and a guest worker plan.

"The details are tricky in building broad support for an approach to immigration," said Ornstein. "The crunch point is how much it costs, who goes home and who stays. It will take time and energy."

Despite a United Nations report this week saying that global warming is likely to raise atmospheric temperatures and cause economic and environmental crises, that issue is also not likely to gain bipartisan support, said observers.

The president's advisers hoped the president's new focus on domestic issues could strike a bipartisan tone. "The power of the ideas requires people to take notice and take seriously important domestic initiatives," White House counselor Dan Bartlett told The New York Times. "There will be key signals to the American people that despite disagreements over the war, other work can be done."

But many liberal voices are not reassured. "This is a failed administration speaking to the nation at the weakest point in his presidency, to a nation that is not only skeptical but has turned against the man they thought could help them in a crisis," said Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation magazine. "Tonight we will see a president building a domestic agenda after witnessing years of dangerous inaction on key issues."

But time is running out for the Bush administration as the 2008 presidential campaign revs up with no Republican heir apparent in the vice presidency.

"Probably nothing he will present tonight will pass Congress," said Robert Reich, co-founder of the American Prospect magazine and a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. "From what I can see, it's a grab bag intended to deflect attention from a massive failure in Iraq and to give a failing presidency a new sense of being relevant."