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THE PRESIDENCY Bush has big plans; can he pull them off?



Published: Sat, January 1, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Bedrock programs are on the agenda for change.

KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

WASHINGTON -- President Bush will take the oath of office for a second term Jan. 20 with ambitions that extend well beyond his next four years in the White House.

Never one to think small, Bush intends to reshape America and the world for generations to come. At home, he wants to establish an "ownership society" by tossing aside traditional approaches to Social Security, federal taxes and the role of government.

Overseas, he wants to transform Iraq into a showcase of democracy, settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and lead the entire Middle East toward Western-style democracy -- all while battling global terrorism and dealing with the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue governments.

"This is a guy who likes to think big. He likes to bite off as much as he can and see if he can chew it," said political analyst Stu Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter.

Even some of the president's most ardent supporters question his ability to carry out his grand vision. For all his talk of political capital, Bush enters his second term with liabilities that could thwart his aspirations.

Weak political position

Presidential scholar Charles O. Jones, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, said Bush was "in the weakest political position of any second-term president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916."

Bush's 51 percent victory margin in the November election pales in comparison with most recent second-term presidents.

Dwight Eisenhower returned to office in 1957 with a 57.4 percent mandate. Richard Nixon won his second term in 1972 with 60 percent of the vote. Ronald Reagan got nearly 59 percent in 1984.

Bill Clinton won just 49 percent in a three-way 1996 race, but he had a 58 percent approval rating at the start of his second term. Bush, in contrast, will end the year with a 49 percent approval rating, down from 55 percent shortly after his re-election.

Other polls indicate that Americans are increasingly skeptical about the war in Iraq, a conflict that could become Bush's Vietnam. A solid majority of Americans now tell pollsters that they don't think the war was worth fighting.

None of that is likely to deter Bush, whose determination to stay the course is a trademark of his personality and his presidency. Supporters see his stick-to-it attitude as a sign of inner strength. Critics consider it a dangerous form of stubbornness.

"Whether you like what he's doing or not -- and a lot of people don't -- he has a real concept of leadership," Jones said. "He has one of the most clear perceptions of the presidency as I've seen in the post-World War II period."

Overarching vision

Nearly all of Bush's domestic policies are held together by an overarching vision that flows from his "compassionate conservative" philosophy. His goal, as outlined in countless campaign speeches, is an America that puts a premium on individual responsibility, faith and free-market capitalism. To achieve it, he wants to scale back the federal social-safety net and government's regulation of business to a degree not seen since before the Great Depression of the 1930s.

His second-term domestic agenda includes plans for private investment accounts for Social Security, an overhaul of the federal income tax, a producer-friendly energy policy and new limits on class-action and liability lawsuits. The president also has pledged to continue his efforts to increase federal funding to faith-based charities and to roll back government regulation of business.

"Franklin Roosevelt created a liberal New Deal. Now is the time to create a conservative New Deal," said Stephen Moore, the president of the Club for Growth, a pro-business, anti-tax organization. "The idea is to move away from the entitlement, welfare-state society."

Achieving Bush's goals requires fundamental changes in some bedrock government programs.

His plan to let workers put some of their Social Security taxes in private investment accounts is a dramatic departure from the notion that Social Security is a compact between generations. Younger workers would look out for themselves instead of contributing their wage taxes solely to provide a safety net for older Americans. The shift from a government-guaranteed pension to one partially subject to market volatility would be an equally profound change.

No details

As for overhauling the income tax, the president hasn't offered anything close to a detailed plan. However, he's repeatedly signaled interest in proposals to reduce the number of tax brackets and cut taxes on investments and interest. Both options conflict with the progressive philosophy behind the current system, which maintains that those who reap more rewards from society owe more back to it in taxes.

Bush doesn't intend to show his hand on tax-restructuring details until a presidential commission completes a study of the options sometime in 2005. He'll say more about Social Security in his State of the Union speech in early February, but wants to withhold details of his plan for that as well until he can negotiate with members of Congress.

In the meantime, powerful interest groups already are lining up against the president's second-term agenda.

Environmental groups are ready for a rematch on energy policy.




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