Bush road-tests an ambitious agenda
He tries to build on momentum of State of the Union and Iraq vote, but resistance runs deep.
President Bush is plunging into his last term in electoral politics with throttles on full - and he is likely to have to leave them there if he wants to enact any of the major items now on his agenda.Skip to next paragraph
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Good timing has helped Mr. Bush make a fast start. The apparent success of the Iraqi elections, plus good news on other Middle East peace issues, provided a positive context for Wednesday's State of the Union speech. Now the White House has launched a burst of of campaign-style travel - with Bush himself on the domestic stump, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Europe - in an attempt to build on the momentum.
But for all the new energy, the administration's agenda still faces tough resistance. Most Democrats remain adamantly against the administration's proposed transformation of Social Security. The nation's big retirement program is such a big issue that it may overshadow the rest of Bush's domestic items - and second-term presidents in general don't get much of a honeymoon period. [Editor's note: In the original version, five words were omitted from this sentence.] "He's going to have to use all of the assets of his office and his personal skills to move these proposals along," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of The Rothenberg Political Report.
As advertised, the State of the Union speech dealt heavily with domestic policy. Bush touched on immigration reform, constraints on malpractice awards, the passage of energy legislation, and promotion of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage - traditional GOP issues the president has long promoted.
But the central issue of Bush's second term will clearly be Social Security. For the first time, Bush laid out his proposal to carve out private accounts within Social Security with some specificity. And this proposal contained some surprises, both in what it contained, and what it left out.
These accounts would be limited to a few conservative investments, according to an administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. The workers who opt for them would "own" only the money in their accounts above a certain set return. This caused some proponents of more extensive change to complain that the "ownership society" aspect of Bush's plan was a bit oversold. At the same time, Democrats noted that Bush emphasized only the candy of the private accounts, while leaving unspecified the broccoli of benefit cuts to traditional Social Security that would probably have to accompany them.
When it comes to political support for the private-account proposals, these details create "the possibility of softening on the right, as well as [continuation] of adamant opposition from Democrats and concerns among moderate Republicans," says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I think it's a very difficult sell."
In addition, Bush's proposal for private accounts is not so much news, as simply newly emphasized. Candidate Bush pushed it in the 2000 campaign. Given the similarly recycled nature of most other domestic items, Bush's agenda lacks a "wow factor," says Mr. Rothenberg. Paradoxically, Bush faced a more welcoming Capitol Hill following his razor-thin 2000 election, according to Rothenberg. Simply being a new face in town worked in his favor. That's no longer a factor.