Freedom 'best hope for peace'

Bush echoed Wilsonian themes in an address that linked US security to the global spread of freedom.

In his four years in office, President Bush appears to have taken to heart at least one important aspect of governing the United States: the power of an overarching vision.

Where his father famously eschewed the vision thing, Mr. Bush in his inaugural address promoted the theme of freedom as a hinge on which virtually all his foreign and domestic policies turn. And he laid it out as a guiding course - promoting freedom as the task of Americans for generations past and generations to come.

Embarking on a second term marked by looming challenges at home and abroad, he took his second oath of office vowing to seize a historic opportunity to turn back forces of tyranny and advance the cause of freedom.

In a 17-minute speech fraught with a sense of mission and urgency, the president presented a forceful case for what aides have come to describe as "the Bush doctrine" - presenting freedom as a thematic underpinning for both his domestic and foreign policy goals. He cast the spread of liberty as the only true path to peace and security, and argued the United States has a unique - and imperative - role to play in the advancement of this cause, for both the safety of the nation and the good of the world.

"America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," he said.

The president stressed the role of history and events, more than ideology or personal belief, as the driving force behind his approach. He referred almost immediately to the "day of fire" - the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that transformed his presidency and launched the nation into conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a global war on terror.

Freedom as a moral imperative

At the same time, he cast freedom as a moral imperative, saying, "We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right."

The inaugural marks the kickoff to what, by any measurement, is likely to be a critical period for Bush's presidency. The Iraqi elections, which will have an enormous impact on shaping the success or failure of America's policy in the region, are less than two weeks away.

At home, Bush faces a rapidly closing window in which to push his ambitious second-term agenda before he becomes a lame duck. It's an agenda that includes major items from Social Security reform to overhauling the tax code. The president is already embarking on an election-style campaign to sell his proposals, with the next part of the bully-pulpit push coming in just a few weeks, with the State of the Union address.

The challenge abroad

Of course, the notion of spreading freedom around the world echoes philosophical themes of earlier presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy.

And just as those earlier visions confronted stark realities that limited their realization, Bush is likely to face his own set of limitations when it comes to carrying out his vision.

While Iraq was supposed to be the showcase of this ideal of spreading freedom through democratization, the ongoing insurgency there threatens to thwart - or at least impede - the upcoming elections.

Moreover, the war and continued engagement of US troops will limit Bush's ability to focus on other priorities that also play a role in democracy's spread - from the Middle East peace process to global poverty reduction and the AIDS epidemic.

The president's hand will be reduced by such tangible realities as the high monetary cost of staying in Iraq and the strains it places on the US military, as well as by such intangibles as the impact the occupation of an Arab country has on America's image and the foreign audiences Bush would like to reach.

At the same time, much of the world, as recent surveys have shown, interpret the "Bush doctrine" in a negative light, as evidence of America's arrogance and willingness to act alone as it sees fit.

Bush may have been responding to some of those critics - as well as hinting at the possibility of a less-than-perfect democracy in Iraq - in his speech. "And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own," he said. "America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling."

At home, too, Bush's plans to "widen the ownership of homes and businesses, retirement savings and health insurance" and to make "every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny," may well be hindered by realities such as a growing budget deficit.

The president's proposal for reforming Social Security has already met with opposition in Congress, even from within his own party. Some Republicans have voiced concerns about costs.

Low popularity

Bush is also attempting to govern at a time of strong political polarization, after a particularly divisive election campaign. Polls show him entering his second term with approval ratings hovering just over 50 percent - historically low levels for a reelected incumbent.

A recent Gallup poll showed the public split, 49-49, over whether Bush will be a uniter or divider - though the president vowed to try to mend the rifts.

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