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Performance Assessment

What with President Bush's State of the Union speech, the ongoing debate over his efforts to change Social Security, his federal budget proposal, and the Iraqi elections, political junkies have had plenty to chew on in recent weeks. To top it off, we can mull former Sen. John Edwards's never-too-soon visit to New Hampshire and the creation, at the University of North Carolina, of a poverty policy institute that could give him a springboard for a 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Edwards's poverty-institute move was pretty straightforward: He needed a platform that would allow him to stay engaged in public policy debates while continuing to run his One America political action committee, which will facilitate his political travels. His challenge is to remain a part of the national political dialogue and to project an image that is different from whatever Democrats eventually decide was the cause of their failure to win the White House last year.

But the more-interesting development was the Feb. 8 release of a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll indicating that Bush's job-approval rating has surged 6 points -- from 51 percent on January 14-16 to 57 percent last weekend. The increase appeared to be driven by favorable news coming out of the Iraqi election. The president's approval rating on his handling of Iraq rose 8 points -- from 42 percent approve, 56 percent disapprove to 50 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove. On the similar topic of his handling of foreign affairs, Bush's approval rating jumped 4 points -- to 51 percent -- and his disapproval rating dropped 5 points -- to 44 percent.

The American public's increased optimism about Iraq was also evident in responses to questions that did not mention Bush by name. A majority of respondents -- 55 percent, up from 47 percent -- said that going to war in Iraq was not a mistake. And 53 percent said that things in Iraq are now going "moderately well" or "very well," up from 40 percent last month. Sixty-four percent said they think it is "very likely" or "somewhat likely" that a democratic government will be established in Iraq -- a 17-point surge.

On domestic policy questions, Bush's approval scores didn't improve much. For example, approval of his handling of the economy held steady at 50 percent. And on his handling of Social Security, he bumped up just 2 points -- to 43 percent.

So, is the rise in Bush's overall job-approval rating just a temporary blip or something more enduring? Since good news out of Iraq seems to have driven his numbers up, events in Iraq are likely to determine whether Bush can retain his current popularity. The success of his domestic initiatives may well hinge on whether he stays at least as popular as he is today.

Even though Bush is asking a great many constituency groups to absorb painful budget cuts to pay for a war, if that war is perceived as going well, he'll be in a fair position to make the cuts stick. But if the news from Iraq again turns relentlessly negative and American deaths continue to mount, then the president will be buffeted by complaints that he wants to cut domestic programs to pay for an ill-conceived and badly executed war.

Bush's popularity or unpopularity has a tremendous impact on the behavior of members of Congress. If Republican lawmakers are forced to choose between favorite constituency groups and a president whose approval numbers are high, they might decide differently than if that president is looking weak and unpopular. Once lame-duckitis sets in, the rest of a presidency is history.

On the Social Security front, skepticism about Bush's proposals continues. Only 44 percent of respondents approve of his approach, even though it was the centerpiece of his nationally televised State of the Union address.

If Bush pursues a plan that cuts future benefit levels by gearing cost-of-living increases to the rise in prices, not the faster rise in wages, and if he carves out a big chunk of Social Security payroll taxes to fund private accounts, reducing the funds that will be available for the next wave of retirees, his plan is destined to fail. On the other hand, if Bush remains flexible and willing to modify his proposal and demands, his chances of success are pretty good.

Regardless of the contours of Bush's final Social Security plan, where he stands in the polls will have an incalculably large influence on how effective he is over the next year or two. At some point, though, inevitably, the lame-duckitis that every second-term president eventually suffers will overtake him.

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