How far will Bush's domestic mandate go?

As a White House economic conference gets underway, the administration forges ahead on the president's agenda - and on selling it to the public.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

President Bush has launched a PR push for his ambitious second-term agenda, with a two-day economic summit aimed as much at refocusing public attention on hot-button domestic issues from Social Security to the tax code - and engendering support for his proposals - as at hashing out new policy details.

The conference, which began Wednesday, features members of the academic and business communities, including many contributors to Bush's reelection campaign. Along with addressing the overall state of the economy, it is highlighting the president's top domestic priorities, including adding private accounts to Social Security for younger workers, simplifying the tax code and making the president's tax cuts permanent, and limiting damage awards for medical malpractice and other forms of lawsuits.

In the wake of his reelection victory, Bush has made clear that he believes he has a mandate, and that he will use his political capital to push for bold reforms.

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But it remains to be seen how strong Bush's domestic mandate actually is. And since many of his proposals have already met with resistance from Democrats and a number of interest groups, the level of public support the president is able to rally will be critical.

Mission: Social Security

Throughout the campaign, Americans routinely cited terrorism, Iraq, and jobs as their top priorities; exit polls showed those voting for Bush were far more likely to do so because of moral values than because they liked his stance on Social Security. Even now, when asked in a recent Gallup poll about the most important problem facing the country today, only 2 percent of respondents cited Social Security, and 2 percent cited taxes - compared with 23 percent citing the war in Iraq.

On the other hand, analysts say, Americans' views on traditional "third rail" issues like Social Security have been shifting in recent years. Attempts to fix the system may be becoming less of a political risk than the appearance of doing nothing - creating a window of opportunity for Bush, depending on how he markets his proposals.

"It's going to be a big selling job," says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. "[But] I think the public will be receptive - they're in a mood to listen to what Bush has to say."

Social Security in particular may present both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity. Polls have shown a gradual shift in the public's expectations regarding the system over the past two decades, with a growing number of Americans expressing a lack of confidence that they will receive all the benefits they are due. More Americans now see their 401(k) or pension, rather than Social Security, as their main source of retirement income. And most polls show a majority of Americans are receptive to the idea of changing the system to allow for private accounts.

There's also a generational factor, with younger Americans the least confident that Social Security will be available to them, and the most receptive to the idea of managing their own accounts. At the same time, analysts agree that the group most likely to resist proposed changes to the system is not the current batch of retirees - whose benefits are almost certain not to be affected - but those at the front end of the baby boom generation, who are on the cusp of retirement.

Some GOP strategists suggest Bush should offer new language to describe his proposals, shifting from "privatization" - which often has certain class connotations - to an emphasis on "personal accounts."

The trouble with taxes and tort

But while Social Security reform alone would make for an ambitious domestic agenda, it may not even prove the most difficult item on the president's wish list.

Certainly, analysts say, Bush may find a wellspring of public support for the general notion of reforming the tax code.

"The public hates the tax code," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. "They're afraid of the IRS, they're frustrated with their own tax forms, and they want a change."

But it's less clear that the public believes change will actually happen on that front - or expects to see real, personal benefits from any proposed changes. Indeed, in the past, even after changes to the tax code have been made, Americans have shown skepticism: After Ronald Reagan enacted major tax reform in 1986, polls showed many Americans didn't think they'd gotten a tax cut, even when they had.

Still, in his opening remarks at the conference, Vice President Dick Cheney said making Bush's tax cuts permanent would be a top priority. Tort reform could also prove a thorny issue, if only because, unlike Social Security and taxes, which affect every American, it impacts a narrower constituency.

But those groups for whom it's a top priority - such as doctors - are highly motivated to press for change. And while public opinion on the whole is less clear on this issue, Americans appear to be at least somewhat receptive to change: Ballot measures on tort reform this past November met with mixed results overall, but passed in four of the six states considering them.

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