2005: A Year of Challenges for President Bush President Bush has had a tough year. The war in Iraq dragged his public standing to its lowest ebb. His administration was criticized for its handling of Hurricane Katrina. But he did score one big success: the appointment of John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court.
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2005: A Year of Challenges for President Bush

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2005: A Year of Challenges for President Bush

2005: A Year of Challenges for President Bush

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We're going to begin this hour with a look back at a year that President Bush may like to forget. When he was re-elected, the president looked ahead to 2005 hoping to enact an ambitious legislative agenda. He was counting on the help of a bigger Republican majority in Congress. Well, things haven't worked out as he had hoped. We'll hear about some of Mr. Bush's biggest public opinion problems in a few minutes. First, NPR's Don Gonyea walks us through the past 12 months of the Bush presidency.

DON GONYEA reporting:

After a first term dominated by 9/11 and two wars, the White House planned to spend this year focusing more on issues closer to home: revamping the tax code, tort reform, immigration and the item that quickly emerged as the top domestic priority for the president.

(Soundbite of February 2005 speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Let me talk about Social Security.

GONYEA: This is in Great Falls, Montana. It's February.

(Soundbite of February 2005 speech)

Pres. BUSH: They always say, `Gosh, that's a pretty tough issue to be bringing up. You got a war to fight. Why you bringing up Social Security?' Here's why. The job of the president is to confront problems, not to pass them on to future generations or future presidents.

GONYEA: Over time Mr. Bush would travel to dozens of states promoting a controversial solution, allowing people to divert Social Security taxes into private accounts. It was the first big test of the mandate the president claimed after his re-election, but the public response was like cold water in the face. The plan went nowhere in Congress either. The more Mr. Bush talked, the less people backed his proposals, and that experience set the tone for what would turn out to be a very difficult year.

That difficulty was also seen in Iraq. There were daily reports of violence, bombings and rising US casualties. But the White House was relentlessly upbeat. Here's the president in June at Ft. Bragg.

(Soundbite of June 2005 speech)

Pres. BUSH: The progress in the past year has been significant, and we have a clear path forward. To complete the mission, we will continue to hunt down the terrorists and insurgents.

GONYEA: Vice President Cheney was on CNN's "Larry King" that same month.

(Soundbite of "Larry King Live")

Vice President DICK CHENEY: I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.

GONYEA: But such assessments differed greatly from what polls were showing. And in August discontent over the war got a public face in the protest of a California woman, whose soldier son was killed in Iraq. During the president's usual month-long stay at his ranch, Cindy Sheehan camped outside the property demanding to meet with him to ask why her son died.

Ms. CINDY SHEEHAN: On April 4th, 2004, my heart and my soul were ripped out. Why would I want one more mother--if it's Iraqi or American, why would I want one more mother to suffer like I'm suffering just because my son is dead?

GONYEA: Sheehan never got a meeting with Mr. Bush, but she was successful in making sure images of a vacationing president were juxtaposed with the discussion of the Iraq War for an entire month. Then as August came to a close, the subject was abruptly changed.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

CARL KASELL: From NPR News in Washington, I'm Carl Kasell. Hurricane Katrina is pounding New Orleans at the moment with violent winds and torrential rains. The rain is being blown sideways...

GONYEA: The president was still at the ranch when Hurricane Katrina hit, and for the first few days he stuck to his schedule. He made a trip to Arizona and California to talk about other issues. During a speech at a military base in San Diego, he opened with a brief mention of the hurricane. He said the government was on top of the situation.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: Our teams and equipment are in place, and we're beginning to move in the help that people need.

GONYEA: But as he spoke that day, he was unaware that a day earlier the levees in New Orleans had been breached. The situation in New Orleans grew more dire, and the White House came under fire for being slow to respond and for the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. On his first visit to see hurricane damage in person, the president had nothing but praise for FEMA and its director, a Bush appointee named Mike Brown.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: Again, I want to thank you all for--and, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director is working 24...

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: But within days Brown was forced out. President Bush was also judged harshly. Poll after poll gave him low scores for his handling of the crisis. He tried to set things right with a prime-time national address from historic Jackson Square in New Orleans.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: Four years after the frightening experience of September the 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I, as president, am responsible for the problem and for the solution.

GONYEA: Katrina inflicted great damage on the Gulf Coast. It also caused gasoline prices to soar nationally. The storm also damaged the president's standing and his credibility. Polls put his job approval at an all-time low.

There were good news stories for Mr. Bush this past year. The economy grew strongly. An energy bill was passed, though without a provision that would allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Perhaps the president's biggest success was his selection of Judge John Roberts as chief justice of the United States. But that success was tempered when the president tried to fill another high court vacancy.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: I sought to find an American of grace, judgment and unwavering devotion to the Constitution and laws of our country. Harriet Miers is just such a person. I've known Harriet for more than a decade. I know her heart. I know her character.

GONYEA: Miers, the White House legal counsel, was immediately attacked by critics from within the president's own party. That doomed her nomination. It was an uncharacteristically messy episode.

Then there was the ongoing investigation into the leaking of CIA Agent Valerie Plame's name to the media. That case resulted in the indictment of vice presidential Chief of Staff Lewis Libby. Additionally, the president's own top aide, Karl Rove, remains under investigation.

In recent weeks the White House has been aggressive in trying to regain its footing. It did so with a series of speeches on Iraq. For the first time, the president tried candor. He acknowledged that progress has been uneven and that the intelligence on Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction was wrong. But he also insisted that the decision to go to war was his and that it was right and that critics of the war are wrong.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: For every life lost, there are countless more lives reclaimed. And for every terrorist working to stop freedom in Iraq, there are many more Iraqis and Americans working to defeat them. My fellow citizens, not only can we win the war in Iraq, we are winning the war in Iraq.

GONYEA: After those speeches, polls showed an improvement for the president. But still the White House was having trouble controlling the national dialogue, thanks to revelations of domestic spying within the US by the National Security Agency. The president defended it as a necessary part of national security. The question, though, is whether he exceeded his constitutional authority. So 2005 comes to a close on a note of controversy, one that will carry on into the new year. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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