Bush's goals still big, bold
Daunting reforms, in unorthodox order, are born of confidence, but leave room for a fall.
WASHINGTON — There has been no talk of a "first 100 days" - that's usually a first-term conceit - but as the Bush White House gears up for its second term, there might as well be. The president is signaling just as ambitious an agenda as a typical first-time occupant of the Oval Office.
George W. Bush could have built a second term around finishing the Herculean tasks begun in his first, foremost among them defeating global terrorism and remaking the map of the Middle East by setting Iraq on a course toward stable democracy. Indeed, an important appeal to swing voters in last month's election was the plea to "let me finish the job."
But a convergence of factors has set President Bush down an equally grand path on the domestic front, with emphasis on early action: his predilection for bold initiatives; the seepage of power that accelerates as a second-term (read: lame-duck) presidency proceeds; and a sense born of 9/11 that a momentous event - such as another terror attack on US soil or even a protracted battle over a Supreme Court vacancy - could sidetrack his whole agenda.
Not only has Bush made reforming Social Security - once considered politically suicidal - the first priority of his second term, he is also contemplating wholesale reform of the tax code. Add to that more tax cuts, an extension of the No Child Left Behind education reform, lawsuit reform, and a comprehensive energy plan. He also says he intends to halve the budget deficit in five years.
"Bush has the most aggressive second-term agenda" in modern history, says Dan Mitchell of the Heritage Foundation.
President Reagan pushed through tax reform in 1986, well into his second term, but by promising to push both tax reform and a major shift in approach to Social Security - the introduction of private accounts - Bush is saying, "Well, I'll see you and raise you," says Mr. Mitchell.
Modern political history is littered with second terms gone awry, marred by scandal: Look no further than Watergate (Nixon), Iran-contra (Reagan), and Monica Lewinsky (Clinton). But the Bush team will hear none of that. The president is aiming far higher than merely avoiding the taint of all-consuming scandal after Jan. 20, 2005.
Bush is also turning the arc of the modern presidency on its head: Usually, presidents focus first on domestic issues, then, if they win a second term, turn to foreign policy, where Congress tends to give them freer rein. In addition to tax reform, Reagan's second term was noteworthy for diplomacy with the Soviet Union as the cold war wound down.
But the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, jolted Bush into a heavy agenda of foreign policy and homeland security, pushing Social Security off the radar screen. Still, his administration did show that it can walk and chew gum at the same time, accomplishing the unprecedented maneuver of cutting taxes during wartime. Now, with slightly larger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress set to take their seats in January - and a spike in his job approval ratings, following his reelection a month ago - Bush has an extra kick of confidence in his voice.
The question is whether, by aiming high, Bush has set himself up for historic achievements - or for a fall. For the first time, perhaps, George W. Bush is not being underestimated. And the friction he has faced with certain factions in the current lame-duck Congress in trying to pass intelligence reform may be a sign that the larger Republican majorities to come could make his life more difficult rather than easier.
"I think there's a level of hubris in the White House right now about what the electorate said and what they can accomplish that's well beyond reality," says Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University, who notes that the Bush White House has little bench strength on economic policy amid reports that the Treasury secretary will leave soon.
"I'll tell you, the risks associated with starting tax reform without having the political muscle to finish it are quite high," says Professor Light. "Once you open the tax code, you can get buying and selling going on there that makes the commodities floor on pork bellies look like child's play."
So far, Bush has not put forth any specifics on what he intends for either Social Security or tax reform. During his first term, Bush demonstrated varying styles on major initiatives: Early on, with education reform, his White House worked closely with Congress - including Democrats - to craft legislation. Later, when a prescription-drug plan for Medicare was on the table, and after relations with Democrats had soured, Bush presented broad ideas and let congressional Republicans write the details. Controversies over how that was achieved, and the legislation's high price tag, continue today.
But it remains unclear how Bush will work with the new Congress. At a GOP congressional retreat this week, attended by White House officials, that was no doubt on the table.
As a prelude to a tax-reform proposal, Bush has announced that he will appoint a commission to study the matter, with its members named by the end of the year. Some analysts see this as a classic delay tactic, and a sign that tax reform won't happen during Bush's second term. Others see a commission as a useful tool that can insulate the president on a difficult issue.
One possibility is that Bush is setting an agenda that could well outlast his time in office - a theory that fits in with political adviser Karl Rove's long-term goal of Republican political domination for the next generation.
Bill Frenzel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and former Republican congressman from Minnesota, sees Bush's bold agenda challenging Congress in ways it's not used to being challenged -- and says Bush could be in for a surprise.
"He's going to find out, as [Presidents] Carter and Clinton did, that having your pals on Capitol Hill does not make the competition any less intense," says Mr. Frenzel. "He's already a lame duck, and each day the duck gets lamer."
Still, he adds, Social Security reform is "doable." As for tax reform, "the problem is it requires a legislature and executive that really wants to cooperate, and it requires the cooperation of both parties or at least traditionally has.
"That's going to be extremely difficult. They have quite different notions of what a good tax reform is. Of course, the tool that the president has is the bully pulpit, and if he can get people thinking about tax reform and Social Security reform, it might work out just fine."