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Expect Bush to Stay Ambitious

Will a State of the Union that stresses 'big issues' be considered shrewd politics or overreaching?

January 27, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With his State of the Union address Tuesday night, George W. Bush will continue to define himself as a president who is as willing to go to war at home as abroad.

Aides say Bush will recommit himself to a series of ambitious goals certain to incite intense political conflict: passing a massive new tax cut when the federal budget already has fallen into deficit, imposing the most fundamental structural changes on Medicare since its inception in 1965, and rallying opinion in America and around the world for a possible invasion of Iraq.

"When he gets done with this speech, people will say he is willing to take on big issues and big challenges and to use his political capital to achieve great ends," one senior White House aide said.

That tendency to swing for the fences is becoming a signature of Bush's presidency. Although he took office after the closest presidential election since the late 19th century, and is governing with only a slim Republican majority in Congress, Bush has shown repeatedly he is willing, even eager, to advance ideas that sharply divide the parties in Washington and opinion around the country -- and often the world.

As he prepares for a State of the Union speech that will continue that pattern, the key political question is whether Bush is being bold or reckless -- whether he is shrewdly pressing his advantages or overreaching in a way that will crystallize opposition and weaken him.

Bush and his aides "believe that when they lead, other countries will fall into line, and that the same dynamic applies to Congress," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. "We'll see if that's true."

Bush's approach has brought him great successes. In 2001, he won a tax cut much larger than almost any analyst believed possible, $1.35 trillion over 10 years. He has solidified unwavering support from Republican and conservative voters, and demonstrated in November's election that he could translate that enthusiasm into votes for GOP candidates.

His relentless insistence that Iraq must surrender any weapons of mass destruction drove the United Nations to demand, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to accept, a resumption of the international weapons inspection process.

But this success has come at a cost. Abroad, Bush faces rising discontent over his determination to steer his course, especially on Iraq, with or without support from allies.

At home, Bush faces a widening partisan polarization in public attitudes toward his presidency, a declining overall approval rating and growing resistance in polls to many of his key initiatives, including the $670-billion tax cut he's expected to highlight in Tuesday's speech.

Against those currents, Bush is displaying a distinct strategy for retaining the initiative. Rather than trying to blend the priorities of the two parties into a new consensus -- as Bill Clinton often tried -- Bush plants his banner at the edge of public opinion, believing he can pull the debate in his direction, as if by magnetic attraction.

Bush, like all presidents, has inevitably accepted compromise. He worked with Democrats in shaping his initiatives to reform public education. He signed into law a campaign finance reform bill he had criticized, but only after it demonstrated broad support.

In foreign affairs, Bush bent to demands from allies abroad and critics at home that he move through the U.N. before initiating action against Iraq. He may yield again to requests from members of Congress and key international allies to give the U.N. inspection process more time to find persuasive evidence against Hussein before launching an attack.

But all of these have been tactical adjustments in a presidency that almost all observers agree has been bolder, more ambitious and more ideological than either Bush's deal-making record as governor in Texas or the narrowness of his victory in 2000 would have predicted.

Like many conservatives, veteran GOP strategist Jeff Bell was suspicious of Bush when he ran in 2000, partly because Bell had soured on the presidency of Bush's father. But Bell has changed his opinion.

While Bush's father often sought compromise with Democrats, Bell said, this president more resembles Ronald Reagan in his focus on a few goals and his reluctance to offer concessions until unavoidable.

Stephen Skowronek, a Yale University political scientist who specializes in presidential strategies, finds a different parallel for Bush's presidency: Lyndon B. Johnson. With his Great Society in the 1960s, Skowronek said, Johnson sought to "complete the work of Franklin Roosevelt" and the New Deal in expanding the government's safety net. Similarly, he said, Bush has set himself on a course to "complete the conservative agenda" started by Reagan, from tax cuts and reductions in federal regulation to a missile defense system.

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