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THE PRESIDENT'S SECOND-TERM BLUES

A politician should have three hats, the poet Carl Sandburg once said: "One for throwing into the ring, one for talking through, and one for pulling rabbits out of if elected." Judging by the polls five months after President Bush's re-election, he's quietly looking for rabbits.

He earned political capital in November and intends to spend it, Bush told reporters as he launched his second term in January. Three months later, polls show his approval ratings and presumably his political capital have evaporated, almost as quickly as the budget surplus he inherited at the beginning of his first term.

Although Bush received 51 percent of the vote in November, only 44 percent approve of the job he's doing in a poll released last week by the Associated Press and Ipsos-Public Affairs. Fifty-four percent disapproved of his performance. And if you're one of those readers who's warming up your fingers to send me a fresh "Bush won! Get over it!" message, don't bother. Bush's dip appears not to have come from liberals, Democratic partisans, or chronic Bush haters.

It appears to be coming from a mixture of loyal Republicans and disenchanted independents who are less than enthused about some of his domestic policy moves. A lot of folks who voted for Bush as a blow against "Hollywood immorality" and "gay marriage" apparently are not pleased to discover they also were voting for private retirement accounts, loosened immigration enforcement and government intrusion into a family's private and painful right-to-die dispute.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll also released last week found 32 percent of Republicans oppose Bush's proposal to let workers invest part of their payroll taxes in the stock market. Half of Republicans and 55 percent of independents oppose his proposal to grant legal status to some illegal immigrants.

Although 87 percent of Republicans approved of his job performance overall, about 18 percent said they lost respect for Bush after he butted into the Schiavo family dispute. But he got off easy compared to Congress, for which 41 percent of Republicans said they lost respect.

Iraq, the war on terrorism and making Americans feel safer were central themes of the campaign, but recent hard-won successes in the long, painful process of democratizing Iraq actually may have nudged the war and other foreign policy issues to the back burner in many minds. On the front burner are the bread-and-butter issues that touch Americans close to home and in their pocketbooks.

That makes Congress nervous, which explains Bush's continuing road trips to sell his Social Security plans to the public. His problem: he's a lame duck. As most of members of Congress face mid-term elections next year, he needs to get ambitious-yet-controversial ideas like his Social Security proposals passed this year, while they still have a chance.

Democrats reasonably point out that the looming Social Security crisis is decades away, while growing woes of Medicare and Medicaid are headed toward a financial train wreck in the next few years. It's an argument they appear to be winning.

Sooner or later, Democrats will have to produce some new, bold leadership, if they're going to reverse their losing election trends. For now, as Bush tries to salvage his legacy, congressional Democrats seem to be following the old Machiavellian adage: Never interrupt your enemy while he is destroying himself.

Second terms can be humbling. Yet, when asked about his low polls, the president stayed characteristically upbeat. "You can pretty much find out what you want in polls," he said. Perhaps. But, as Sandburg might wonder, can he find some rabbits?

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