Bush, GOP Face Low Poll Numbers

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The House of Representatives passed a bill this week to cut $50 billion from domestic programs. The cut comes at a time when both President Bush and the Republican-led Congress are down in the polls and seeking ways to turn around their fortunes. Political analyst David Gergen has served three Republican and one Democratic administration and now teaches public service at Harvard. He tells NPR's Scott Simon what President Bush could do to repair his domestic agenda in the eyes of the public.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The House of Representatives passed a bill this week that cuts $50 billion from domestic programs, including Medicaid, food stamps and student loans. There may be some tough bargaining ahead with the Senate, which has passed 60 billion in tax cuts along with a tax increase on oil companies that's opposed by the White House. Now these votes come at a time when both President Bush and the Republican-led Congress are down in the polls and seeking ways to turn around their political fortunes. Last week we looked at the administration's foreign policy. This week we examine President Bush and the Republican Party's domestic agenda. We're joined by David Gergen. He served three Republicans and one Democratic president in the White House. He currently teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and he joins us from there.

David, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. DAVID GERGEN (Political Analyst, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): Thank you.

SIMON: Do we see the Republican Party, the congressional party in particular, pulling in different directions at the moment?

Mr. GERGEN: Absolutely. And if anything, I think it's going to require, if I may say so, not only a course correction in policy but a course correction in governance--in general approach to governance by the administration.

SIMON: Well, start first in what you'd recommend with the course correction in policy.

Mr. GERGEN: I think that in terms of policy in looking ahead to the next two years, he's clearly waiting for the State of the Union to announce his agenda. And it's clear Social Security is--reform is dead and he's going to come up with something else. There's many reports there's going to be tax reform will be the centerpiece of the State of the Union, perhaps with a few other things like energy.

In that sense, I think that he has to now seek to be a president not just of half the country but president of all the people, which would be new to this White House. Part of his problem now is that he's got the Republicans with him still mostly, but Democrats have clearly fled, but the Independents have also melted away. He has only 29 percent support now among Independents. That's from his point of view an alarming drop. He has to rebuild his trust. So I think that that starts with not just a policy solution, but it starts by going back to the country Reagan-fashion to have a national conversation. You know, what's gone wrong? Some candor and humility, plus graciousness, toward the other side I think would begin to heal some of the wounds in Washington now. We've had just a horrible week of rhetoric--overheated rhetoric in Washington. I think setting a new tone in Washington is fundamentally important to getting him back on his feet as president both domestically and internationally.

SIMON: I can recall after a State of the Union address where President Bush was seen to kiss Senator Lieberman of Connecticut.

Mr. GERGEN: I doubt that will happen again soon. Then there was a big--I think there was a big hug for Daschle along the way, wasn't there?

SIMON: Yes, there was, if I'm not mistaken.

Mr. GERGEN: I don't foresee that right away, but I think the exchanges with Congressman Jack Murtha this week about Iraq were so personalized and so toxic. When he...

SIMON: I thought Mr. Hadley was quite shaken by that.

Mr. GERGEN: He was, but we also had Jack Murtha being linked by the White House to Michael Moore. We are--we had the vice president of the United States this week saying that these calls by Democrats were, quote, "reprehensible." We've had suggestions from the president as he left for Alaska that this was helping the enemy.

SIMON: What's the political effect of that kind of back and forth?

Mr. GERGEN: When you get this polarized, it makes it harder to keep the Democrats--those Democrats he might be able to win over for Alito for the nomination in January or February, to keep him close in. And it makes it very hard to get bipartisan solutions to issues such as tax reform. All indications are that they are rejecting this kind of advice, and that they think it--this is anathema, that this is caving into the middle, caving into the softness. And so there's a lot of hard line--no--forget not only `no,' but `hell, no.' But one hears from people who are close to the administration, `Don't write off the possibility that there's going to be a course correction.' So I'm still hopeful, even though the--all signs right now are, `Are you crazy? We're not doing any of that stuff. We're going to go with our conservative base.'

SIMON: David Gergen, thanks very much.

Mr. GERGEN: Thank you.

SIMON: David Gergen teaches public service at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He served under Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.

And the time is now 18 minutes past the hour.

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