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ELECTION 2004 / THE WHITE HOUSE | THE AGENDA

Majority Win Could Make Second Term More Partisan

November 04, 2004|Doyle McManus and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Four years ago, George W. Bush won his first term with fewer votes than his opponent, but governed as if the nation had granted him a clear mandate to pursue conservative policies.

This time, Bush can claim a solid mandate of 51% of the vote, which made him the first presidential candidate to win a clear majority since 1988 -- a point Bush aides made repeatedly Wednesday.

So although the president reached out to defeated Democrats in his brief victory remarks Wednesday afternoon, his aides and supporters were quick to suggest that his bipartisanship might not go far -- and that they expected Bush's second term to pursue even more ambitious conservative goals than the first.

"President Bush ran forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future, and the nation responded by giving him a mandate," Vice President Dick Cheney said as he introduced Bush at the victory celebration.

"This is going to be a more creative and more controversial term than the first term," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.

In his first term, Bush pursued domestic policy goals that were already popular: tax cuts, education reforms and Medicare expansion. But for his second term, the president has chosen more controversial -- and politically more difficult -- priorities: revamping the federal tax code and restructuring Social Security, the most popular government program in history.

In foreign affairs, Bush entered the White House in 2001 with relatively modest aims, but his presidency was redefined by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 that year. Officials and experts said his second term was likely to be dominated by the unfinished business of the first: the war in Iraq, confrontations with Iran and North Korea, and the continuing struggle against Islamic terrorists around the world.

All that, Gingrich and others said, could make Bush's second term an exception to the normal historical pattern of recent presidencies -- at least in the scale of its ambitions. Instead of a lame-duck second term of small ideas and small achievements, Bush has staked out a list of ambitious, difficult goals.

"People say, 'The country's divided; shouldn't he be less ambitious?' " said Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform. "No. This is a Republican-majority country. He will govern as aggressively as in the first term."

The president described his second-term program Wednesday in broad-brush, detail-free terms: "We will continue our economic progress. We will reform our outdated tax code. We will strengthen the Social Security for the next generation. We will make public schools all they can be....We will help the emerging democracies of Iraq and Afghanistan so they can grow in strength and defend their freedom, and then our servicemen and women will come home with the honor they have earned."

But it will be no easy task to simplify the tax code's tangle of provisions that benefit powerful and entrenched interests, or to remake Social Security, a program long called the "third rail of politics" because members of Congress believed touching it would be fatal to their careers.

"It's always easy to give more money away," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), referring to Bush's first-term tax cuts. "Now what the president is going to have to do is challenge the Congress, lay out the facts and challenge his own party and the Democrats."

In his first four years, Bush cut taxes at a time when the economy needed a lift and the federal budget enjoyed a surplus -- initially, at least. He expanded Medicare benefits the way members of both parties had been advocating for years. And he tried to improve education at a time when many Democrats agreed that standards needed to be raised.

By contrast, his second-term agenda includes more risk for politicians -- and asks for more sacrifice from voters.

Simplifying the tax code is a Herculean political task because so many powerful interests are poised to defend every tax credit, deduction and subsidy in the Internal Revenue Code. The changes Bush seeks in Social Security -- allowing workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in private accounts -- would strip some future retirees of government guarantees in exchange for the possibility of greater rewards, and could cost trillions of dollars to implement.

Republicans close to the White House say Bush is determined to leave a revamped Social Security system as his legacy. They describe him as inspired both by statesmanlike zeal to solve a long-neglected problem and by ideological desire to replace the government-run safety net with a system that relies on individual choice and responsibility.

Bush also has pledged to cut the federal budget deficit in half in five years, a goal that would be difficult to achieve even without costly military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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