Handicapping President Bush’s Second Term

Posted February 4, 2005 at 5:20pm

President Bush begins his term with one of the most ambitious second-term domestic agendas in recent memory, including potential overhauls of Social Security, tax policy, immigration, medical malpractice and class-action legal reform and deficit reduction. [IMGCAP(1)]

But historically, second terms haven’t been very successful, and Bush faces an uphill fight convincing Congress to pass his agenda. He surely knows he won’t get all he wants from Capitol Hill, and his chances of getting even half a loaf on Social Security, his highest priority, depends on his ability to sell his views to the American people.

While Bush and Vice President Cheney insist they begin their second term with a “mandate” and “political capital,” they’re wrong. They don’t.

Yes, the president drew a majority of the votes cast in November, won by 3.5 million votes (a dramatic improvement over 2000) and helped his party gain House and Senate seats. And yes, he talked about Social Security, tort reform and other domestic issues on the stump.

But none of that created “political capital” for Bush because it didn’t increase his influence with the people who matter — the public at large and Members of Congress.

Nobody believes that Bush voters supported the president primarily because he supports private accounts under Social Security or tort reform. They may have agreed with him on those items, but they voted to re-elect him primarily because of his leadership on the war in Iraq and the global war against terrorism.

There is no honeymoon on Capitol Hill in 2005, since key Members of both parties are not inclined to defer to the president on his agenda. Most of his proposals have been around for a year or two, and legislators are not impressed with Bush’s current political standing in the polls. In fact, Democrats believe public opinion on Social Security is on their side.

Ironically, it almost seems that Bush had more leeway to push his agenda after his narrow 2000 victory than he has after his more substantial victory in 2004.

Moreover, Capitol Hill Republicans no longer feel a need to rally behind Bush now that he has defeated Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Instead, key legislators once again appear more impressed with their own importance. They’ve seen presidents come and go, and while they may like to shake his hand when he enters or exits the House chamber to deliver his State of the Union address, they figure their ideas are as good — or better — than his.

On Social Security, Bush needs to convince the public and a supermajority in Congress that the program faces a crisis and that his plan for private accounts will somehow help avert it. And he must do so in the face of Democratic attacks that he is exaggerating the program’s problems and would add trillions to the deficit with his proposed “solutions.”

On tax reform, the president must convince various constituencies, including many GOP allies, that they won’t suffer financially if Congress makes fundamental changes in the way the country calculates and collects federal taxes.

On immigration, Bush must convince his party’s Congressional leadership to turn their attention to his very divisive guest worker program. Then, he must convince the unconvincable — many of whom are in his own party — that they should support his plan.

On tort reform, the president, who came nowhere near 60 votes on medical malpractice reform in the previous Congress and has only a few more votes in this Senate, must convince allies of the trial lawyer community to commit hari-kari by backing “reform” now.

He must do this, of course, with a roller-coaster war in Iraq distracting the public’s attention, a large deficit that needs shrinking, potentially bloody judicial fights and an approaching midterm election in 2006 that is likely to have GOP Members of Congress increasingly skittish. And that doesn’t count other initiatives that will arise following unforeseen events.

It’s far too early to proclaim any of the president’s initiatives DOA. Some of them will be enacted. But it is fair to conclude that Bush as an incredibly difficult task ahead, particularly as he tries to mold public opinion on his Social Security agenda and convince Congress to enact a package that meets his satisfaction.

Republicans on the Hill are likely to be more independent, not less, in the next two years, and Democrats will be more united in their opposition than they were during his tax-cut and education fights during his first term.

The challenges are great for this president, in part because his goals are so ambitious. People in the know tell me that he doesn’t merely want to get the ball rolling on Social Security. He wants a bill that he can sign, even if he leaves its details to Congress.

So the key questions are how much Social Security reform will be enough? How fundamental does fundamental tax reform have to be? What kind of tort reform is real reform? Ultimately, the president will find he has less control over what Congress will send him than he does over what he is willing to accept.

Even the best salesman sometimes has to lower his expectations.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report