Bush scales back his goals, ambitions


WASHINGTON -- The state of our nation remains strong. The state of George W. Bush, on the other hand, is only fair to middling.

Bush's address last night, like all such appearances, was as much about the president's progress as it was about where the country stands.

How'd he look? Trim and confident. How'd he sound? Determined and on the attack. Any surprises? Not really, unless you count the lack of surprises in a speech filled with election-year undertones and modest proposals that were leaked in advance.

The initiatives he advanced - at least those with a realistic chance of getting enacted - reflected the scaled-back ambitions of a president with little ability to make sweeping changes, at least at home.

To cope with rising health care costs, perhaps the top priority for most Americans, his biggest proposal would help only the relative few with the resources to afford Health Savings Accounts.

Instead of a push for conserving gasoline, in the face of high energy prices, his answer is hoped-for "breakthroughs" in technology, plus more wood chips, and other biofuels, for cars.

The "never surrender" theme was vintage Bush, who predicted that "the pessimists" would be proved "wrong ... again."

"Every great movement of history comes to a point of choosing," he declared, echoing former President Ronald Reagan. "Will we turn back, or finish well?"

Bush was speaking about the country, but he could have been referring to himself.

Most Americans think the country has gotten seriously off on the wrong track in Bush's second term, polls show. Among the reasons he is weaker politically than at any comparable time in his presidency: an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and an uneven economic recovery at home, the same surveys indicate.

Even Republican voters believe the Congress, with all its flaws, is better suited than Bush to set the agenda for the nation, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Still, the presence in the House last night of newly minted Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was proof that Bush is anything but a spent force. New opportunities might well present themselves, over the next three years, to deepen the lasting imprint he has already left on the judiciary.

His orders to the National Security Agency for warrantless eavesdropping, which he defended again as an essential "terrorist surveillance program," show his willingness to exercise authority in other realms, using muscular interpretations of executive power urged by the man seated over his right shoulder last night, Vice President Dick Cheney.

Yet like sand through an hourglass, Bush's clout is eroding.

Not all of the problems are of his own making. And every second-term president is, by definition, a lame duck. But critics charge that Bush's decision to govern narrowly, by opting for tough partisanship over cooperation, has constrained his options and limited his chances for success, particularly as his party becomes increasingly divided.

Unlike his father, who famously acknowledged that the debt-ridden federal government had "more will than wallet," Bush stubbornly, and characteristically, chose not to address the limits he faces. He called again for making permanent his earlier tax cuts and outlined a $50 billion competitiveness initiative that, budget specialists have said, could well be too expensive to enact.

In recent months, after the government's failed response to Hurricane Katrina and widespread problems with the launch of the administration's complex Medicare prescription drug plan, incompetence has become a popular anti-Bush theme.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine sounded it in the Democratic response last night, blaming Washington's problems on the Bush administration's "poor choices and bad management."

Bush made no mention of his Medicare drug plan, nor did he renew his call for what was to have been the signature initiative of his second term: an overhaul of Social Security.

After pointing to the "unprecedented strains" and "impossible choices" posed by the baby boomers' retirement, which starts this year, Bush retreated. He called for a new commission to study the problem, all but guaranteeing that nothing will happen until another president comes to town.

Previous Bush commissions to study Social Security (2001) and overhaul the nation's tax system (last year) failed to generate action at a time when his influence was greater.

High gas prices have yielded record oil-company profits and lower job-approval numbers for the president. As he did last year, Bush pressed for nuclear power and other technologies as the "best way" of weaning America from its "addiction" to imported oil. He did not renew his call for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which remains blocked in Congress.

He made no reference, either, to such mega-issues as climate change, the sharp growth in the size of government or the growing long-term federal debt.

Instead, for much of his speech, Bush looked abroad, as second-term presidents often do. His handling of national security remains his strongest asset, polls show, though that too has waned.

Bush's policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East has been dealt an unanticipated, and potentially severe, blow by the election victory of a violent Islamic faction in the Palestinian territories. Meantime, the leaders of al-Qaida taunt him with broadcast messages that remind the world that they remain free more than four years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Iraq, which basked in the glow of its first democratic election one year ago, is struggling to form a national government, while casualties continue to mount.

Bush alluded to some of those problems, while hinting again that troop withdrawals are in the offing. Here, too, his hands are tied, at least for now, by the struggle of Iraq's disparate factions to come together in a new government.

Admitting that Iraq is "difficult," he insisted that the United States is "in this fight to win, and we are winning."

Recently, Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, signaled an intention to play to the president's strength on fighting terrorism. Reviving a strategy that produced Republican victories in 2002 and 2004, the White House aide contrasted what he called the Democrats' "pre-9/11" world view with the "post-9/11" Republican view.

In line with that approach, Bush repeatedly posed a stark choice last night: continued U.S. action against terrorism or "isolation and retreat" in "this decisive year."

For the president, 2006 offers one last opportunity to assist Republican candidates in an election that, history says, strongly favors the party out of power in the White House. Control of both the House and Senate are on the ballot, even though Bush is not.

A year ago, from the same rostrum he occupied last night, Bush aimed high and fell flat. His all-out push to overhaul Social Security flopped, an excuse for loud Democratic celebration when the president brought it up last night.

Now, instead of thinking big, he's offering approaches to major problems, when he addresses them at all.

In private, Bush likes to mock his lame duck status, but he is also a realist. If next year at this time he is standing again before a Congress with Republican majorities in both houses, he can count that as a victory.


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