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.

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.

"So the key is how he works with the Hill, and whether he can mobilize national opinion on his proposals," says Rothenberg.

Given that Bush's job-approval ratings remain mediocre, Democrats feel they are on solid ground in their opposition to private Social Security accounts. Bush has run his last campaign, so by some measures his power is already seeping away.

But as the president showed in 2000, when he won large tax cuts despite losing the popular vote, a mandate is as a mandate does. His ability to use the levers of power available to a US chief executive appears considerable. "This president is very bold and ambitious and risk tolerant," says Mr. Mann. "And he goes for big things, but I don't see him being in a particularly strong political position."

Of course, it is foreign policy that may turn out to be defining aspect of Bush's terms in office. And on that he appears on stronger ground for the moment.

The turnout in last Sunday's vote in Iraq shifted the terms of debate in Washington over the US occupation. The administration appears to have gained some ground versus opponents such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who have been calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.

"Support was just melting away. Now, while the ... war there is hardly ... popular, the erosion has ceased, for the moment," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Bush's tone was much less confrontational on foreign affairs than in some past State of the Union addresses, a point that is likely to register with allies the president will visit later this month in Europe. At the same time, the president's request for $350 million to "promote [Palestinian] democracy" sets a positive tone for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, currently on a trip to Europe and the Middle East.

European leaders complained for much of the first Bush term that the US was not adequately engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and have hinted that a Rice visit with lofty words about diplomacy but no specifics would not impress them. The president's monetary pledge - which represents a huge increase in American assistance to the Palestinians - along with specific security proposals Dr. Rice plans to lay out on the table, should gain a sympathetic ear.

Perhaps most encouraging for Europeans was Bush's supportive reference to negotiations under way by Britain, Germany, and France to end Iranian nuclear programs that could result in that country attaining nuclear weapons.

The president's address "contains a positive message to Iran that the US is supportive of European Union efforts to persuade Iran that its best interests lie in integrating with the international community rather than in pursuing an autarchic military nuclear capacity," says John Bruton, the EU's ambassador to Washington. "There's a good prospect that a reasonable deal can be struck, with US support, if resolute efforts are made on all sides."

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