Bush's next moves: still big
As first term winds down, his team is weighing bold, but risky, steps.
WASHINGTON — In the modern era, an incumbent president's approach to a second-term run is typically, "Let's finish the job we've started." The pitch is not usually a head-turning new plan of action.
But President Bush may be ready to break that pattern. If one of his father's failings in his own reelection bid was the famously elusive "vision thing," Bush the Second seems poised to aim high.
As the Democratic candidates claw for the president's post, Mr. Bush and his top advisers are contemplating possible grand ideas to put forth in the Jan. 20 State of the Union message - the tacit launch of his reelection campaign.
Some new initiatives are already on the launch pad: Wednesday, Bush will propose extensive changes to US immigration policy, including the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants.
Bush's advisers "think the presidency is about big things," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. "They were somewhat contemptuous of the small-bore, mayoral approach of the Clinton administration in his second term. They're partly motivated by politics, but also ideology and a sense that they know best."
In the past month, a series of big ideas - all just being floated, nothing concrete - have surfaced from administration officials not speaking for attribution. The most eye-popping was a possible return to manned exploration of the moon, an idea that seems to have vanished as suddenly as it resurfaced.
Other trial balloons include an initiative to end childhood hunger, a cure for cancer, universal health insurance for children, and, even more expansively, an effort to insure all of the 44 million Americans without health coverage.
Of course, Bush's first term has already been marked by major initiatives, including the doctrine of preemptive defense used to justify invading Iraq. His administration has also passed major education reform and added a $400 billion prescription-drug benefit to Medicare.
And like every first-term president, Bush has a list of items on his agenda that are unfinished, including Social Security reform, tort reform, making the tax cuts permanent, another go at energy legislation, and, the biggest of all, transitioning Iraq to the control of Iraqis and drawing down the American presence.
There could be a considerable downside to adding more to Bush's already full plate, analysts say.
A big one is cost, with the federal budget deficit closing in on a record $500 billion for this fiscal year. (When the first President Bush proposed a return to the moon in 1989, the idea sank under its $400 billion NASA price tag.) Bush could also be accused of having a case of presidential attention-deficit disorder.
Among some fiscal conservatives in his own party, Bush faces criticism for the big jump in the budget deficit.
But the overall impression - that this president is all about being bold and decisive - may be what counts most with a public that rarely gets excited about an abstraction like the deficit.
"It's very Rovian," says Brookings presidential scholar Stephen Hess, referring to Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove. "He does things grander than most political strategists in that regard. He seems to care not just about reelecting George W. Bush but also electing some kind of permanent Republican majority."
In the next year, Bush's approach to taking on large new projects could relate directly to how the Iraq war is going. In other words, if Iraq is going well, he won't need to change the subject. But if not, analysts say, there may be a temptation to do that.
Fred Greenstein, presidential scholar at Princeton University, recalls that President Kennedy's proposal to go to the moon came hard on the heels of the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.
Mr. Greenstein says that Kennedy adviser Ted Sorensen acknowledged essentially that the president "had to do something" to divert attention.
"They have a kind of double bind with Iraq," says Professor Buchanan at UT. "It's already the most ambitious foreign policy experiment ever, in some ways. But on the other hand, it's also a bit of a drag. Thus some deflection of attention from that is necessary. One way to do that is a look to the future."
In his State of the Union, Bush can take credit for having deposed a dictator, but he won't rest there, Buchanan says. "Although foreign policy will inevitably be a big part of this election, elections are also about domestic ambitions," he adds. "That is where I think they're going to look for their lift, so to speak."
It has become almost a cliché that the second term pales in comparison with the first. In fact, recent presidents have seen scandal break out soon after the second inaugural: Watergate for Nixon, Iran- contra for Reagan, Monica Lewinsky for Clinton. But Reagan, at least, showed that a second term can also be surprisingly productive: He held four summits with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and presided over the end of the cold war.
Just as the current President Bush has looked to Reagan in other ways as a model for leadership, so, too, has he signaled that he hopes to emulate the 40th president in the bold strokes of a second term.
What, then, will be the 2004 version of Reagan reelection theme "morning in America"? Bush's Jan. 20 address to Congress may reveal the answer.