Buoyed by success of Iraqi vote, Bush swings for the fences

State Of The Union

Analysis

February 03, 2005|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In governing, as in life, timing is everything. Last night, President Bush spoke to Congress and the nation in the afterglow of an Iraq election that provided the first rays of hope in months for that troubled land.

Bush is thinking big and talking the same way as he opens his final term in office. He made that plain in an inaugural address about freedom and democracy and again in his State of the Union speech, which echoed and refined those themes.

Recent progress in the Middle East has given him a well-timed burst of confidence, one that could help him as he attempts to promote ambitious initiatives in Washington.

Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team (he once described trading away Sammy Sosa as the biggest mistake of his adult life), is swinging for the fences now. He's got only a few years left to make his mark, but, barred by law from running again, he's freer than before to aim high.

The 58-year-old president who stood before Congress last night was a more mature figure, and not just because, as he joked, he sees "a lot of gray" in the mirror these days. In the only real surprise in his speech, he agreed to put a number of politically risky ideas for reforming Social Security on the table, confounding skeptics who see him as all happy talk and no tough choices (though he didn't commit to any tough choices and he notably ruled one out - raising payroll taxes).

Over time, Bush's place in history will likely turn on perceptions of his overseas ventures, especially Iraq. Right off the bat last night, he hailed the recent elections there, as cheering Republicans saluted him with index fingers dipped in ink. He also spoke of a "new phase" in the U.S. military deployment that would let American forces take a less active role.

But he notably tried to redirect attention toward his domestic agenda, a far-reaching plan to reshape the role of the federal government in ways large and small.

His top priority, as expected, is a sweeping transformation of Social Security, the nation's largest and most popular government program - and, not incidentally, the greatest domestic achievement of liberal Democrats in the 20th century. To update the plan created by New Deal President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose words Bush repeatedly quoted last night, he promised younger Americans "a better deal."

Even his conservative allies aren't sure Bush can pull it off. They believe the White House would claim victory - and that Republicans would rightly get credit from swing voters - if Congress does anything that strengthens the program's long-term finances, even if the privatization plan fizzles.

Open derision from congressional Democrats, who heckled his warning that Social Security might go bankrupt, is just one sign of the difficulties Bush will face in wooing needed Democratic votes, assuming he can keep his own party united behind him long enough to give the plan a chance.

Bush did acknowledge a need for "an open, candid review of the options" in solving Social Security's projected funding imbalance. As yet, he's offered no proposal of his own (even White House aides admit his privatization plan won't fix the funding problem).

Bush did say that raising the retirement age and changing the ways that benefits are calculated - either would mean cuts in benefits for future retirees - were among the solutions he's willing to discuss.

Exactly eight years ago, Bill Clinton, the first and only other Baby Boomer president to win re-election, began his second term by claiming a mandate to preserve Social Security for "the next 50 years." He talked boldly about investing Social Security funds in the stock market, an idea that went beyond Bush's.

The president and his aides claim that, unlike Clinton, Bush means business - and that he doesn't intend to stop with Social Security.

He has drafted a vast conservative blueprint, though most of it consists of warmed-over ideas from his first term.

As he did in his 2004 State of the Union message, often using identical terms, he called again for new education reforms, relief from "frivolous" lawsuits, halving the deficit, making his tax cuts permanent, reforming immigration, protecting traditional marriage and passing an energy-security plan that has gone nowhere in almost four years. Even the plan to let younger workers put money into personal accounts - so that Social Security can be a source of "ownership" for people - has been there before.

The context and the emphasis, however, are different. Last year's speech set the stage for a re-election contest in which Bush's victory, at the time, was far from assured. That address framed the nation's priorities in terms of a struggle against al-Qaida and global terrorism.

Ultimately, Bush succeeded in defining himself as a wartime president and convincing - critics would say frightening - a majority of voters into keeping him in office.

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