Washington It is good that President Bush had a long vacation at his Texas ranch, because this autumn is going to be sheer hell for him. After a relatively tranquil shakedown cruise, he is about to learn how tough his job can be.
A combination of factors some, such as the economic slump, outside his immediate control, and others, notably his overstuffed agenda, of his own making has left him as vulnerable as his predecessor, Bill Clinton, was at this point in his first year in office. And it took Clinton two years and a chastening mid-term Democratic election defeat before he began to recover.
The economy and the federal budget are Bush's most obvious vulnerabilities. Members of Congress who spent the past month back home know that these feel like hard times to many of their constituents. The past week's reports of slumping consumer confidence and an April-June quarter that just barely avoided a recession-signaling decline in overall economic activity merely confirmed what they heard on Main Street.
The White House is determinedly cheerful, claiming that the tax rebates will shake things out of the doldrums. But Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the Republicans' senior budget authority, told CNN's "Late Edition" that with "the world in economic recession, I'm not sure it (the American economy) is going to come back very fast."
Meantime, the combination of slumping revenues and the tax cut has left Bush without any wiggle room in the budget. Bush claimed the other day that his fashioning "a fiscal straitjacket for Congress" is "incredibly positive news." He will soon find that he is in that same bind himself, because almost any additional spending he wants, whether for defense or education or anything else, will have to be offset by reductions elsewhere in government making his priority goals that much harder to achieve.
But the larger problem Bush faces is the imbalance between his overweight policy agenda and his sharply limited political capital. It was exactly that imbalance that toppled Clinton into political trouble eight years ago. As a 43 percent plurality winner with no coattails, Clinton pushed through his first tax bill, just as Bush has done, and then started September with simultaneous demands for health care reform, NAFTA and "reinventing government" legislation. It was too much. NAFTA was approved, over the opposition of most of his fellow Democrats, but the others foundered and by 1994, the rout was on.
Bush has even fewer political chits than did Clinton. He lost the popular vote and has not been able to push his job approval rating out of the 50s. Unlike Clinton, who had a Democratic Congress, Bush has an opposition-controlled Senate. And this autumn's elections in Virginia, New Jersey and New York City may not bode well for Republicans.
Yet Bush has an agenda larger and more controversial than Clinton's. That is a surprise, because one of the keys to his success as Texas governor was his discipline in limiting the number of issue battles on which he engaged.
But look what he has put on the table for this fall:
l An education reform, which has passed the House and Senate but in versions no one in the White House thinks are workable. A conference committee must struggle to make it acceptable to Republicans, Democrats and the state and local officials who have to live with it.
l A military reform, including everything from missile defense to cutbacks in conventional forces and bases, which has stirred remarkably heavy criticism from the military brass and from key players in Congress.
l A "faith-based" initiative, which passed the House on a partisan roll call and faces serious opposition in the Senate, heightened by the recent resignation of the Democrat that Bush had recruited to guide the program.
l A trade bill, restoring negotiating authority the president deems vital, but which Democrats and their labor allies will try to restrict or defeat.
l An energy bill, loaded with controversial items such as drilling rights in wilderness areas, passed by the House but certain to be battered in the Senate.
l An HMO reform bill, passed in a more restrictive form by the House than the Senate, and a likely target for further Democratic demands.
l And finally, a Social Security reform proposal, due in two months from a White House-appointed commission and already the subject of repeated attacks from the Democrats.
That is not the entire agenda, but it is enough to suggest the scope of the political sales job facing a president who has struggled to persuade the country of the wisdom of a tax cut that actually put money in people's pockets. What confronts Bush now is an ordeal that really will make clearing brush in the heat of a Texas August seem like a vacation.
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.