Much of Bush's agenda of 2000 is agenda in 2004

Priorities rearranged abruptly by 9/11 attacks

Election 2004

September 29, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush took office in 2001 with bold promises. He would cut taxes, improve public schools and strengthen the military. He would give prescription drug coverage to those in Medicare and reform Social Security to let workers put some of their taxes in private investment accounts.

The governor of Texas promised to "change the tone" in Washington and end the seething partisanship on Capitol Hill.

In some areas, Bush delivered. He pushed bills through Congress that cut taxes and rewrote education policy in ways that mirrored his promises.

Beyond those two legislative achievements, Bush has had a mixed record. He has made limited progress on Medicare and the military. The swelling costs of Social Security have gone untouched. And Washington remains a hotbed of partisanship.

The president will defend his record in three debates against Democrat John Kerry, beginning with one tomorrow night in Miami that focuses on foreign policy.

Bush is in a position far different from where he was in 2000, pounding the record of Bill Clinton and Al Gore while casting himself as an outsider from Texas who wanted to bring a fresh approach to the White House. Like every incumbent, Bush now must confront any perceived failures over four years as commander in chief while defending the direction he has taken the nation.

The Sept. 11 attacks, of course, reshaped the Bush presidency less than nine months after it began. In campaign speeches in 2000, Bush never uttered the word "terrorism." Today, he says he considers the global fight against terrorists his highest calling.

The war Bush began in Iraq - which he said became necessary after Sept. 11 proved the need to respond to threats to America - distracted him from other goals and became an overarching issue to many voters.

In defending his record, advisers portray a president who made hard choices to protect the nation, such as the decision to invade Iraq. They concede he did not achieve as much as he hoped in other areas - on Social Security, for example - in part because national security had to become a singular focus.

"Because 9/11 was such a historic event, it took oxygen out of the room for other things," said one senior adviser in the Bush campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"The best-laid plans always go awry. You can start with your own priorities, but world events and surprises can have such an impact on them, it's tough to see them through over a term."

Accomplishments

Still, his aides say that Bush has a laudable record of keeping campaign pledges, especially given how much of his time was consumed by terrorism and homeland security.

On education, Bush gained quick passage, with bipartisan help, of the No Child Left Behind act. The law has brought stricter requirements for public schools to test students and allowed parents to transfer their children out of failing schools.

The president says the law has forced public schools to improve and to better serve disadvantaged students, ending "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

But the law has drawn fierce criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. Some conservatives complain that it has imposed new burdens on local school systems and robbed them of their independence. Democrats say Bush has not provided the necessary funding to carry out what is legislated.

The president did fulfill his vow to cut taxes, delivering $1.3 trillion in tax cuts in 2001 and billions more in legislation passed since then. Supporters say Bush's tax cuts helped create jobs, spurred economic growth and eased some of the pain of the recent recession.

But Democrats contend that the tax cuts contributed to new federal deficits and largely benefited the rich. The White House responds by saying that Bush, as a candidate in 2000, had said the nation could run a deficit in cases of war or recession, and that America endured both on his watch.

Bush also succeeded in providing a prescription drug benefit through Medicare. But lawmakers in both parties were unhappy with the final product.

Democrats said the law, as written, was a gift to the drug industry and offers little relief to the elderly. Republicans complained that the price of Bush's plan was double what he had projected and that the law did not address the long-term problem of soaring health care costs.

Victories and policy

Gerald Pomper, a professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University who has studied presidential campaign pledges, said Bush "has gotten a lot of what he wanted and what he announced. Now, whether it is good policy or not - that is a different kind of question."

Given his record, Pomper said, Bush should be enjoying a bigger lead in the polls.

"If there was a 9/11, but no war in Iraq, he would be way ahead," Pomper said. "He ended up getting much of what he wanted. But he also ended up succeeding in getting a war in Iraq. What he has not succeeded at, and may never, is getting optimistic results from the war."

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