Bush makes three bold, and high-risk, moves

Plans on missile defense, Social Security, and energy.

As the curtain lifts on the second 100 days of the Bush administration, Act II looks to be weightier and even bolder in scope than were the opening days.

In it, President Bush sets to work on issues that could alter the fundamental relationship of individuals to their government, as in Social Security reform, and commit the US to huge investments in everything from energy resources to space-based military technology.

While Mr. Bush will probably find it difficult to win a consensus on such monumental issues (far harder, even, than tax cuts or education reform), he shows a certain courage in even trying. Presidents who had far stronger mandates from voters tended to sidestep the same thorny issues that Bush appears ready to tackle head-on.

The themes of Act II represent what Bush the elder might call "the vision thing." They include revamping Social Security by privatizing part of it, abandoning a nuclear-missile treaty of 29 years' standing in favor of a national antimissile shield, and making domestic energy production a priority.

These, say presidential historians, are the makings of a substantial legacy - if Bush can actually achieve them.

"I don't think this is yet transformational leadership, but it might be if he can get all these things through," says historian James MacGregor Burns.

The White House has made a conscious decision to launch into these issues now. Bush this week gave a major speech about national missile defense. Yesterday, he named a bipartisan panel on Social Security reform to find ways to carry out his privatization idea. Within the next few weeks, the administration is expected to detail its energy plan.

"These are big-think, big-work" issues that "will take a longer time to bring to reality," says White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, explaining why his boss has decided to take up these campaign promises now.

The test of a president, however, is not how many ideas he rolls out or even how sweeping they are, but what he accomplishes. By this yardstick, Mr. Card's "big-think" description might be translated to "politically radioactive."

"Every one of these areas is a legislative land mine. It is not going to be easy to accomplish," says Leon Panetta, chief of staff in the Clinton White House and a former congressman from California. To push them through a narrowly split Congress will require broad bipartisan support, he adds.

That already appears to be absent in at least two Bush endeavors: Social Security reform and national energy plan.

Social Security

Although Bush's new Social Security commission includes some Democratic luminaries such as former Sen. Patrick Moynihan of New York, it is packed with people known to back the president's ideas, complain Democrats on the Hill. Especially controversial is Bush's plan to allow young Americans to voluntarily divert part of their Social Security payroll tax to private accounts that invest in stocks, bonds, and so on.

The president is banking on the expectation that, over time, private accounts would earn a higher rate of return than the current system. Opponents fret that diverting money from Social Security would leave the retirement program emaciated - and that those private-sector nest eggs might crack if the stock market wobbles.

Energy policy

Bush's national energy strategy, while not yet public in full, is already taking heat. Democratic lawmakers say it leans too hard on oil, gas, coal, and nuclear energy, and not enough on conservation and efficiency. They criticized Vice President Dick Cheney's statements, made Monday, that "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

Missile defense

The idea of building a national missile defense is not as partisan. In fact, President Clinton supported the idea, but in a more limited form.

Like Bush, proponents are ready to abandon the cold-war-era strategy of nuclear deterrence via a sheer multitude of missiles on each side. They say today's concerns - accidental attack or individual missiles from rogue states - are best met by building a defense that could shield the US by intercepting such missiles. Bush would extend the protection to US allies and friends.

But the technology for such a system is in its infancy, and some argue an antimissile shield will never be possible. Opponents also worry about resistance from other countries, such as Russia, China, and the nations of Europe.

If these obstacles aren't enough, there are always the perils of an overloaded Congress, says political analyst James Thurber.

"The Hill can only take so many things at one time," says Mr. Thurber, director of congressional and presidential studies at American University here. Although Bush is smart to start on these big ideas early, he says, "there's a big danger he's overreaching and overloading the Hill."

The White House's Mr. Card counters that Bush will not dump these issues, en masse, on the Hill. The Social Security panel, for example, won't make its report until fall. On missile defense, "the initial work needs to be done in the Defense Department, and then in capitals around the world, so Congress doesn't have to get involved immediately," he says.

While analysts say the president's ability to stay focused on his agenda is a uniquely Bushian asset that could help him greatly, they wonder if that is enough to move such big-ticket issues from the in-box to the out-box.

Unfortunately, they say, it often takes a crisis to allow a president to push through mind-stretching ideas. Severe economic depression prompted Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Lyndon Johnson played on President Kennedy's assassination to help push through the Civil Rights Act, says John Blum, a presidential historian at Yale University. And Ronald Reagan's agenda didn't get rolling until after the attempt on his life early in his administration, Mr. Blum adds.

"In a democracy, things get done through either leadership or crisis," agrees Mr. Panetta. In the absence of crisis, he says, Act II will surely test Bush's leadership.

Staff writer Abraham McLaughlin contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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