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Widely popular president struggles

With Congress on its Easter break, it is clear that the elevated status President Bush has achieved as commander in chief of the war on terrorism has so far not produced any comparable gains for his influence on other issues.

Democrats as well as Republicans have been strongly supportive of his leadership against the "evil ones" in Afghanistan and the other nations from Colombia to the Philippines he has defined as threats to international and domestic tranquility.

But on almost every other issue, the political opposition has not hesitated to challenge Bush or even to frustrate his wishes, notwithstanding the high popularity and approval he enjoys in every poll.

This may be of no great consequence to the president, who has made it plain both publicly and privately that he believes his place in history will be defined by the degree of success he achieves in ridding the world of the threat of terrorism.

But it is of importance to his party, which has an agenda of changes it would like to make while it controls the White House, the House of Representatives and 49 seats in the Senate.

Looking back, one would have to say that Bush's domestic achievements preceded the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and owe nothing to the national acclaim his response to that attack has earned him.

After 14 months in office, he has two notable domestic accomplishments to his credit _ one partisan, the other bipartisan.

The partisan victory was the passage of the sweeping long-term tax cut enacted last spring, largely by Republican votes over the opposition of most Democrats. Bush ran on that tax cut and pushed for its enactment at a time when his standing with the public was as shaky as his victory margin over Al Gore.

The bipartisan victory was the "No Child Left Behind" education bill, which Bush signed into law at the beginning of this year. This, too, was a promise that figured prominently in his campaign for the presidency. While it became law after the terrorist attacks, the steps that led to its passage were taken much, much earlier.

Most of the essential political bargaining took place at a meeting with key members of both parties at Bush's Texas ranch before Inauguration Day. The bipartisan deal was sealed in a face-to-face meeting with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy during the first week Bush was in office. The only impact of Sept. 11 was to delay for weeks the final negotiations on the education bills long since passed by both the House and Senate.

Since then, the widely popular president has struggled without much success to gain leverage in a divided Congress on almost every major matter not directly tied to the terrorist threat. Consider what has happened.

The economic stimulus bill he had declared essential for recovery from the recession was delayed and delayed _ and finally sent to him in watered-down form only after authorities had proclaimed that economic recovery was well under way.

His budget has been given a rough reception in the Senate, with sharp challenges to many of the domestic cuts he has proposed. The likelihood is that Bush will be fighting a series of battles with the appropriations committees for the rest of the session.

There has been no rush to enact any of his other signal domestic initiatives, whether they be the plan to expand the community functions of religious organizations, to offer millions of Americans new opportunities for volunteer service, to reform and redirect the welfare program, to provide guarantees of patients' rights in the limited form he seeks, or to change Social Security to include individual savings accounts. His landmark trade negotiating authority bill is also languishing.

Instead, Bush faces the prospect of signing campaign finance legislation he long has opposed _ a bill bearing the trademark of John McCain, his least favorite fellow Republican.

Meantime, the Democrats are showing their defiance by rejecting his choice for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Charles W. Pickering, and Congress is crowding him on issues of executive privilege, demanding testimony from Tom Ridge and letting its agency, the General Accounting Office, sue Vice President Dick Cheney for access to the White House energy records.

None of this impairs in any way Bush's strong position of leadership on the war. But unlike some other wartime presidents, his mandate and his authority are unusually narrow.

+ David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group