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Published: Sunday, 5/14/2006

What will it take to get Bush back on track?

WASHINGTON - Can George W. Bush get his groove back?

Much has been made in recent days of the President's plummeting job-approval ratings, especially among conservative Republicans. He lost most Democrats long ago.

Barring another terrorist attack, which would instantly if only temporarily rally the country, are there ways for the President to climb out of the slough of only 31 percent popularity?

Yes, but they are not likely to happen.

Mr. Bush would have to make some dramatic, unexpected changes. Because he does not believe he's doing anything wrong, he's not likely to swerve from the way he's been governing.

Why are Americans so disillusioned with the White House?

Pollsters say the job-approval rating is a will-o'-the-wisp way to judge popular sentiment and isn't all that reliable. Popularity goes up, it comes down, sometimes in just one news cycle. The more valued tool, they argue, is the question of whether Americans think the country is on the "right track" or the "wrong track."

And there the news is not at all good for the administration. Almost seven out of 10 don't like the direction of the country.

Americans think the war in Iraq has been handled disastrously because of stubbornness, oversimplification, and a desire for war with Saddam Hussein no matter what.

Americans think high gas prices could have been prevented.

Americans think there's a "culture of corruption," to use the Democratic phrase. They blame both parties, but it hurts Republicans more right now because they're in power.

Americans think immigration is a crisis. Rightly or wrongly, they think the administration has faltered on securing the borders and developing a tough, workable policy on who comes in and who stays.

Americans think the nation's stature around the world has fallen in the aftermath of 9/11, and that now there's a perception among millions of Muslims that the country is at war with them.

Americans think that Mr. Bush's determination to make the Middle East a bastion of democracy (of which they wholeheartedly approve) is not seen around the world as noble but as self-serving because the administration failed to sell it abroad.

Despite the administration's passionate insistence that the economy is growing and doing well, with a solid job-creation rate, millions of Americans don't feel that it is. There's a lurking fear that their personal economic story is akin to a house of cards only a paycheck away from tumbling down.

Mr. Bush could begin to change perceptions if Americans saw a cessation of the growth of violence in Iraq, saw serious progress by Iraqis in taking control of their own security, and had assurances we won't become mired in Iraq, where we are increasingly hated.

If Mr. Bush stopped talking in platitudes about energy (simply opening up pristine areas for oil and gas exploration and development will not solve the problem) and put long-term solutions in place (that's another column), Americans would cut him some slack.

If Mr. Bush spoke out against influence peddling, surrounded himself with new blood, and started listening to some outside expertise, he might regain the people's faith that he knows what he is doing.

Mr. Bush's personnel decisions are beginning to look not just as loyalty picks, but as if they were a result of throwing darts. He chose Porter Goss to revamp the CIA, and now the CIA is in worse shape than ever. The nation's entire intelligence apparatus seems to be a disaster area. The turf battles are nightmarishly worse than ever.

Once Mr. Bush had an approval rating of 91 percent. Now people are asking: Can this man get anything right?

Yes, there's a certain fickleness to how our regard for leaders ebbs and flows. And the history of second terms is that they nearly always end poorly.

But the truth is, Americans are bored with Mr. Bush and scared that he's incompetent in a dangerous age when America's reputation and ideals are waning. Many Republicans, astounded by the mounting debt he is piling up for future generations and the little it has bought (think tax relief for the very rich), fear he's lost his conservative moorings.

So far Mr. Bush's answer to his popularity woes is to wage a hard fight for the November elections. Take note - this will be a nasty battle, which is why the White House right now is not about policy, or changes in direction, but hard-knuckled politics. Mr. Bush is intent on keeping GOP control of both the House and the Senate, which would go a long way toward bolstering his base.

Come January, however, it's all about 2008. Unless Mr. Bush gets into his groove and regains public confidence, he will become increasingly irrelevant.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

Contact her at:

amcfeatters@

nationalpress.com



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