WASHINGTON --President Bush is embarking on an agenda that will dramatically test his bully pulpit and set the tone for how he will be judged in the one place left to him -- history.
His initiatives, foreign and domestic, are probably as ambitious as any set by a chief executive since Ronald Reagan undertook to derail the Soviet Union through military spending while at the same time initiating a huge reduction in income taxes.
But even Reagan, with his enormous popularity and communications skills, did not have the temerity to challenge the basic structure of Social Security, the one issue most presidents have considered political poison, and with good reason.
In fact, after finding himself besieged by outraged seniors and gleeful Democrats over proposed mild changes in the entitlement program's benefits, Reagan ordered his advisers never again to mention the program in the Oval Office.
Yet here is Bush, despite a second-term victory margin that hardly could be called a mandate, girding for an all-out battle to convince Americans that the Social Security crisis is now and must be dealt with posthaste if the impending bankruptcy foreseen by 2042 is to be avoided.
More than that, he would fix it by privatizing a portion of the tax base necessary to meet current and immediate future obligations. Putting some funds into choices like the stock market with potential higher interest rates, he contends, would give younger workers the same opportunities as those now provided government employees, who can divert part of their income into thrift plans that include equities options for investment.
Is he crazy to take on this battle at the same time he must convince the world that the invasion of Iraq was a good idea as finally displayed by the enormous turnout of Iraqis in that nation's first free elections in decades? Wouldn't it be enough just to find a way to speed extraction from a commitment with which most Americans are growing increasingly uneasy?
Well, no one ever said that Bush was a terribly prudent man.
Personal sales pitch
So, following a State of the Union message that found him not only outlining this most sensitive of proposals but also other initiatives, he will begin crisscrossing the nation to personally sell his plan. He says he will listen to any good idea about reforming Social Security -- presumably even those from Democrats in Congress, who have made it clear they think they have enough votes, in the Senate at least, to stop his privatization idea dead in its tracks.
There is little doubt that he has an uphill fight. Not only are Democrats seen as solid in their opposition, a number of Republicans also have voiced misgivings about this proposal. Even the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has made it clear that he thinks the president has little chance of winning. And how does he overcome the opposition of millions of AARP members, who twitch uncontrollably anytime a politician mentions adjusting Social Security?
In his annual address to Congress and the nation, Bush tried to neutralize some of the AARP venom by emphatically disavowing any plan that would change the benefit structure for those now 55 or older. They would continue under the present payment system.
It would be foolish to take this president's salesmanship lightly. He proved how formidable he can be when he takes his case to the public in a re-election campaign in which he seemed an almost certain loser, if approval ratings and other measurements could be believed. Fellow politicians as well as just plain citizens respond to his innate friendliness and his ability to stay on message.
But grabbing what has been called the third rail of politics without electrocuting oneself will be a true challenge even for a chief executive who has shown just how effectively he can use the bully pulpit. It could only be done in the lame-duck term, and in the first two years of that.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.