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Despite the Skeptics, Greatness Is on Bush's 2nd-Term Checklist

The president plans to use upcoming speeches to set an upbeat tone but must deal with lagging poll numbers and reluctance over policies.

January 18, 2005|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As he prepares to launch his second term, President Bush is aiming for nothing less than a legacy that would rank him among America's great presidents.

He wants to be remembered as a public servant who promoted political freedom abroad and economic freedom at home, a leader who did not recoil from the big problems that developed early in his first term, notably the 2001 recession and the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks.

Yet as the president begins making that case to the American people -- starting with his second inaugural address Thursday, followed by the annual State of the Union speech 13 days later -- he will in many ways be dealing from a position of weakness.

Bush is saddled with job approval ratings barely above 50% -- ahead of only President Nixon among newly reelected second-term presidents since World War II. Some of his top priorities, including Social Security restructuring and immigration issues, face skepticism from key Republican lawmakers. And recent polls suggest that the public does not subscribe to key aspects of his agenda.

Historians and analysts such as Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist, warn that Bush is in danger of overreaching in his second term.

"What he needs to do is to galvanize support, in and outside of Washington, to try to inspire a new beginning at a time when his bare-majority approval scores are low by recent standards for just-reelected presidents and many in his own party, not to mention Democrats, are already in open revolt against his agenda," Buchanan said.

Undaunted, Bush speaks with relish about spending political capital to achieve what is an unusually activist lame-duck agenda. His two speeches will give him a perfect opportunity to lay out that agenda.

"In many ways, they are different speeches," said Mike Gerson, the president's chief speechwriter. "The inaugural will be broad, with principles and philosophical commitments. The State of the Union will be much more of a blueprint, with details flushed out. They are complementary but very different."

The president and his senior aides are still polishing both speeches -- Bush held a second dress rehearsal for his inaugural address Monday morning. But top White House officials and the president have more than telegraphed his intentions in recent interviews.

In two postelection news conferences and a series of interviews, Bush came across as confident, grateful to voters for renewing his White House lease and eager to get on with the public's business. He also acknowledged that his blunt speaking style occasionally got him into trouble.

"I think one of the things I've learned is that sometimes words have consequences you don't intend them to mean," Bush told several regional newspapers, including the Hartford (Conn.) Courant, last week.

" 'Bring 'em on' is a classic example," he said, recalling his challenge in July 2003 to insurgents in Iraq who were attacking U.S. troops.

In an ABC interview, he told Barbara Walters that his wife, Laura, "chewed me out" after he said he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive."

On Iraq, Bush indicated that he would stay the course despite the continuing violence. "I hope that 50 years from now people will look back and say, 'Thank goodness old George W. stuck to his beliefs that freedom is an agent for change, to make the world more peaceful.' "

Adding to the challenge of a second inaugural address, according to former presidential speechwriters, is that the president, as a known quantity, is held to higher expectations. With few exceptions, such as Abraham Lincoln's, "almost all second inaugurals are actually quite bad," Michael Waldman, who wrote for President Clinton, said on CNN on Sunday.

"What's different about a second inaugural? There are no rules. It's individual to each president," said author Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for President Reagan and now writes a column for the Wall Street Journal online. "A first inaugural asserts intention; a second inaugural speaks of what has happened the past four years and what is intended for the next four."

Gerson said that described Bush's intentions exactly.

"In our case, we lived a lot of very interesting history together with the American people that we need to interpret and explain," he said Monday. "Many of the themes, then, are determined not just by your intentions but by the history of the last four years."

Anthony Dolan, another speechwriter for Reagan, saw similarities between Bush in 2005 and Reagan in 1985.

"A lot was still left unresolved, and Reagan faced ferocious criticism for his handling of foreign policy," Dolan said. "Yet in both his inaugural address and the State of the Union, he was resolute. I think in President Bush we're likely to see even less concession to polling data."

Recent polls show that Bush hovers just above the 50% job-approval mark. Both Reagan and Clinton stood at 62% after their reelections; President Eisenhower stood at 73%.

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