San Diego Union Tribune

May 16, 2006

Bush uses a key issue to launch rebound

By George E. Condon Jr.

WASHINGTON – With his address to the nation on immigration, President Bush tried to stop his political bleeding, reassure his conservative allies and persuade a skeptical public that he not only shares their concerns but knows how to make real progress on an issue they care about.

Bush began the speech realizing he needs to score a major win soon on an issue like immigration if he is to rebound from his current doldrums and inject fresh energy into the remainder of his presidency.

That may be more than any one speech can realistically deliver. But the address did put new pressure on Republicans in the House who have refused to follow his lead. If anything, they have been emboldened in that defiance by what they have heard from increasingly angry voters in their districts.

Getting past the deployment of several thousand National Guard troops to assist in border security – the headline of the address – it was a cautious speech, designed more to bring both sides together than to champion only one side of the controversy.

“He steered a middle ground,” said pollster John Zogby, who has recently surveyed American attitudes on immigration. “It was an excellent speech in that he's trying to seek a solution to what to date has been an intractable problem, and trying to lead by bringing the two different sides together.”

Voters tired of polarization may welcome seeing the president play the role he promised in his campaign. On this issue, at least, he is trying to be a “uniter not a divider.”

But Bush brings very little credibility into this particular battle. Zogby's latest poll shows that an incredibly low 13 percent of the public give the president positive marks for his handling of immigration. A whopping 85 percent give him a negative assessment on the issue.

There was something for both sides here with promises of toughened enforcement balanced by renewed calls for a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship – but not amnesty – for those already here illegally. But the emphasis was on security.

“You can't go wrong if you say we're going to enforce the law, and that's what he is saying tonight,” said Stephen J. Wayne, an expert on the presidency at Georgetown University. “This was a speech to stop the slippage of the conservative base and to make people think he is still relevant as president and still shaping policy.”

The initial reviews from conservatives were not entirely encouraging for the White House.

“It's just symbolism; it's window dressing,” said John Keeley of the Center for Immigration Studies, which calls for tougher enforcement of immigration laws and is close to Republicans in the House.

“There's no enforcement teeth here,” he said.

Keeley said that many House Republicans were stunned at the ferocity of their constituents on the issue and returned to Washington from their districts “far from wavering; they've actually steeled their resolve.” Because of this, he said, Bush's speech “is not going to change any minds in the House.”

He dismissed the deployment of National Guard troops, saying, “They will be deployed for a week or a month. Then they'll be withdrawn out of sight of cameras.”

The sight of those troops at the border, though, could hurt the president's foreign policy outreach to Latin America. Already, the announcement has embarrassed Mexican President Vicente Fox, and the White House is braced for criticism from Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia and Peru.

But Bruce Buchanan, a longtime Bush observer at the University of Texas at Austin, said the speech was necessary if the president is to change minds in the House. “It had a combination of symbolism and deference to House attitudes in trying to get them to loosen up a little bit on the guest-worker provision in the Senate bill,” he said.

Stephen Hess, a longtime presidential analyst at the Brookings Institution and George Washington University, also warned against expecting too much out of just one speech, calling this “the first step on the trip back to political health.”

“One thing it does is remind House Republicans of how much they are in bed with him. It's a tough thing to turn against the president of your party on a key issue,” Hess said.

But one voice for a tough bill said after the speech he is unpersuaded.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, said the speech “came up short” and failed to offer enough specifics or enough funding guarantees for border states.

“It's certainly a good start, but except for the 6,000 new border patrol agents, I would say there was no new initiative tonight,” Issa said. “He's still talking about a pathway to citizenship that requires a complete change in the concept of citizenship.”

Issa said the president needs “a much bolder initiative.” And he faulted Bush for saying virtually nothing “about the prosecutions of coyotes or of people who traffic in human beings.”

Copley News Service correspondents Dana Wilkie and Otto Kreisher contributed to this report.

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