Bush's bold agenda, soaring stakes

Wednesday's unveiling of a $400 billion prescription-drug plan is latest move for an administration bent on shaping history.

To some, President Bush has taken on an appropriately ambitious agenda - from a war that aims to remake the map of the Middle East to a domestic plan that includes big new tax cuts and a $400 billion prescription-drug plan for senior citizens. Routing Saddam Hussein, a popular goal with Americans, would add a fresh infusion of optimism to the US economy.

To others, Bush is more than proactive: He is taking policy risks that go well beyond what events dictate. The result, skeptics warn, could be a disastrous entanglement in a part of the world most inhospitable to Americans - and a ballooning deficit that could hobble the economy for years to come.

In his relatively short political life, Bush has gone far by being bold, while playing down expectations. In his first race for Texas governor, in 1994, he took on a titan, incumbent Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, and won. In his 2000 presidential race, he defied the odds again by beating the incumbent party amid peace and prosperity.

Last fall, he put his political prestige on the line in an unprecedented campaigning spree - and helped the Republican Party sweep control of Congress.

But nothing in Bush's prologue compares with his current to-do list, the mother of all presidential agendas. And expectations for what Bush can achieve have never been higher.

'High-wire acts' in Washington

"He's engaged in high-wire acts all across the policy field," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin, and a longtime Bush-watcher. "To have so much on the plate at the same time is contrary to the received wisdom, in terms of what presidents should do to minimize political vulnerability. There are too many ways to fail."

The word "failure" is not in the White House's vocabulary. Neither is the word "risk," except when framed against what Bush's advisers see as the larger risk of inaction. Events have dictated the president's course, in the White House's view. In public, there is no sense that, in the face of a war against terrorism and a flagging economy, the president could be contemplating any other course of action but the one he has embarked upon.

"From the president's point of view, the worst risk is to do nothing in the face of the threat of Saddam Hussein, post-Sept. 11," says Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman. "The president has to weigh at what point does the balance tip between the risk of action, which could lead to fatalities, versus the risk of inaction, which could leave us open and vulnerable to another attack like 9/11."

The economy and tax cuts figure into the same equation. "Just because we may go to war, should we not support policies that make the economy grow?" Mr. Fleischer says. "There have to be jobs for the military to come home to. That requires economic growth. For that, we need tax relief."

Tuesday, Bush focused on Medicare, unveiling his administration's plan to offer prescription drug benefits to seniors. The proposal would provide incentives for seniors to sign up with private insurers, but also give modest drug benefits to those who stick with Medicare. It's a step back from the more ambitious proposal the administration was considering - to require Medicare recipients to sign up with a managed-care plan for drug coverage - but Bush's advisers still peg the cost at $400 billion over 10 years. By any measure, it's a big outlay of federal funds.

Bush is not the first president to attempt war and a major domestic initiative simultaneously. But history has shown that when war intervenes, domestic agendas move to the back burner. By 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, aimed at pulling the nation out of the Great Depression, had given way to World War II. In the 1960s, President Johnson's Great Society agenda was subsumed by the Vietnam War.

A bolder Ronald Reagan

Many Republicans compare Bush's agenda and style to that of President Reagan, who cut taxes and pushed the cold war to conclusion at the same time.

"President Bush has the courage of his convictions," says Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist based in Atlanta. "It takes a real leader to take actions that he truly believes are in the best interest of the country, then convince the country that he's on the right course."

Mr. Ayres then raises the Reagan analogy: "His statement 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall' was not the pronouncement of a timid man," says Ayres, citing Mr. Reagan's address to the former president of the Soviet Union and his reference to the Berlin Wall.

Professor Buchanan, at the University of Texas, sees Bush as bolder than Reagan. Ronald Reagan's risk-taking was "primarily rhetorical," he says, while Bush is "putting 200,000 troops on the ground in a distant corner without provocation."

In addition, analysts note, while Reagan did cut taxes while building up the military, he also raised taxes later. No one is predicting Bush will do the same - in part because a tax increase helped deal a mortal blow to his father's presidency. By all accounts, the subtext for the current President Bush's ambitious plans is the failure of the first President Bush to put forth a bold agenda after his Gulf War triumph. This president's advisers are seeing to it that the public perceives the son differently.

The problem now, says presidential historian Robert Dallek, is that the American public isn't paying attention. It's just seeing "bold" without seeing the details.

"He's going to fight a war in Iraq, turn it into a democracy, remake the Middle East, and solve the Palestinian-Israeli problem," says Mr. Dallek. "This is a fantasy."

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