One of the devices used to gauge how things are going for the president of the United States is the "100 days" marker.
Every White House, Republican or Democrat, complains about this obviously arbitrary standard and says it's too early to draw conclusions so early in a term. Still, journalists and others find the first 100 days an irresistible occasion for assessment. Not for grand conclusions, perhaps, but signs of how things are going and where things are headed.
President Bush has just passed the 100th day of his second term. And given all of the post-election talk about his big store of political capital, it's fair to say that the Bush White House is not where it expected to be when April turned to May. For now, at least, that mandate the president was talking about 100 days ago seems to have lasted about as long as the cherry blossoms that come and go so quickly around Washington's Tidal Basin every spring.
The high points came early. The president issued clarion calls for democracy in the world in his second inaugural address on Jan. 20 and for overhauling Social Security in his State of the Union speech two weeks later. On Jan. 30, the Iraqis held a surprisingly successful election. There were hopeful developments in Lebanon, in Egypt and in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
But since then the trends have been more troubling. While the Iraqis have squabbled over forming a government, the insurgency there has come roaring back. A new Gallup Poll this week shows public support for the U.S. role in Iraq at its lowest point ever. Some 57 percent now say the war there was not worth it.
Also putting a damper on things was the tepid response to the president's 60-day road show on Social Security. While he has persuaded the nation there's a problem, his private accounts are not nearly as popular as hoped. And more than 60 percent now tell pollsters they disapprove of the president's handling of the issue.
Toss in the bigger-than-expected controversy (and skittishness by some Republican senators) over the nomination of John Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations, and the ethical questions dogging House Majority Leader (and critical Bush ally) Tom Delay, and it's starting to feel less like a fresh spring and more like the dog days.
Of course a second term is not really a fresh start. It is a chance to change the focus a bit, and the president has done that. He's spending more time and energy pushing his domestic agenda, even while Iraq and other foreign policy issues remain daunting.
It's also instructive to look at where the President was exactly four years ago, at the 100-day mark of his first term. On that day in 2001, I did a story for about a bipartisan luncheon the president hosted at the White House. The guests of honor were nearly 200 members of Congress — from both parties. The president talked about how things were already changing for the better in Washington.
"I want to thank you all very much for your service to the country," he began, "I also want to thank you for the constructive spirit in which we've conducted the people's business. I know this, that whatever your views on a particular issue are… we share a common goal. And that is to serve our country. And it's OK sometimes to share a meal, and that's why we're here."
There was laughter, there were toasts. The mood was congenial. It didn't last.
Why? Each side blames the other. The president' s critics say he has excluded Democrats from policy discussions, pushed hard-line conservative judicial nominees and campaigned hard to defeat even those Democrats who have worked with him on many issues.
Last week, at a primetime news conference marking the first 100 days of this term, the president faced questions like this one from the Los Angeles Times.
"Sir, you've talked all around the country about the poisonous partisan atmosphere here in Washington. I wonder why do you think that is? And do you personally bear any responsibility in having contributed to this atmosphere?"
The response was defensive, with the president saying he's sure there are some who don't like him. As for his own role in widening the partisan divide, he answered that he didn't know what it might be. He then added, "I've thought long and hard about it. I was — I've been disappointed. I felt that people could work — work together in good faith. It's just a lot of politics in the town."
Then he tossed in a not-so-subtle dig at the Democrats. "I'm proud of my party," the Republican president said, "our party has been the party of ideas."
That doesn't exactly sound like a man working to change the partisan tone in Washington. And it's a far cry from his comments to members of Congress at lunch four years earlier.
There's something else the president has learned by now. He's not getting the second honeymoon re-elected presidents usually get.
In terms of public approval, he was doing much better four years ago, even after the bitter legal fight that followed the 2000 election. At this point in 2001 Americans seemed to be putting the Florida recount behind them and giving the president who did not win the popular vote good scores for the job he was doing.
An ABCNews/Washington Post poll from back then put his approval ratings at 63 percent positive, and 32 percent negative. Gallup had it at 62-27, positive versus negative.
People liked the guy.
These days, the numbers tell a different story.
That same ABC News/Washington Post polls now has him at just 47 percent positive and 50 percent negative. Gallup has him with a 48 percent positive rating, 49 percent negative.
One other thing about a second term. At some point next year, perhaps after the mid-term elections, Mr. Bush will have another unofficial title added to his name. Lame duck. No one knows just when that unwanted status takes over, but the hard reality is that a president who wants to accomplish big things in a second term has a lot less than four years in which to do them.
And this president will need to do better than he has in these 100 days.