by James Rosen
January 15, 2005
Now, on the cusp of his second inauguration Thursday, the former Texas governor is pursuing bold and expensive plans both in domestic policies and around the globe. From his controversial decision to invade Iraq in his first term to his bid to overhaul Social Security in his second term, Bush has displayed a leadership style that surprises presidential scholars with his derring-do readiness to roll the dice on big gambles and confront the political risk they create.
"He's much more assertive than I thought he would be, which belies the impression that is pretty universal about him of limited intellectual capacity," said Charles O. Jones, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington. "He has confidence in himself, and he's more of a risk-taker and clearly willing to engage problems that he identifies. All of that I find quite surprising. He's different than I thought he would be."
The bid to establish democracy in Iraq in the face of a bloody insurgency is only the most obvious of the foreign policy challenges that will test Bush's resolve in his second term. He also faces the constant threat of more terrorism strikes at home or abroad; bids to acquire nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; growing economic competition with China; movement back to authoritarian rule in Russia; and ongoing strains with Europe.
At home, with the federal deficit soaring to record heights and the Iraq war draining tens of billions of dollars, Bush is already confronting opposition from Democrats _ and some nervous Republicans - to his plans to reform Social Security by allowing private accounts, limit medical malpractice suits and restrict tort damages, simplify the tax code and make permanent the income tax cuts he pushed through Congress in his first term.
Bush's trademark bravado was in full bloom Tuesday at a Washington forum where he appeared to relish the task of tackling Social Security reform.
"I know this is an issue that some would rather not be talking about," he said. "It's an issue that some think has got too much political danger attached to it. ... This isn't easy. If it were easy, it would have already been done. It kind of makes it fun, though, doesn't it? Take on the tough jobs."
Many professional president-watchers accept Bush's assertion that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks redefined his presidency by forcing him to become a war president. But they say his personal traits also put a pronounced stamp on his first term and stand in sharp contrast to the incremental, cautious approaches of his two immediate predecessors, President Clinton and Bush's father.
"His survival in the face of all sorts of terrible events _ some of which were not his fault and some of which were _ and his implacability are extraordinary," said Alan Brinkley, a Columbia University historian. "He just never gets rattled, never changes course. I think that's his great strength. Whether you like the course or not, it's hard not to be impressed with how absolutely committed he is to follow the path he sets for himself."
Looking ahead to his second term, many presidential historians and political scientists agree that Bush has two years at most to achieve his ambitious goals on Social Security, taxes, tort reform and health care.
"I think the two-term limit is a good thing, but one of its consequences is that it makes the president a lame duck in his second term," said Steven Calabresi, a constitutional law professor at Northwestern University who held Justice Department and White House posts in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. "It means that in the second term, you've got about 18 months to two years to accomplish what you want to accomplish. In the last two years, it's very unlikely that you'll get much done because public attention will shift to choosing your successor."
Second terms have bedeviled many presidents fortunate enough to gain re-election. Clinton was undone by Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. The Iran-Contra scandal dogged Ronald Reagan. Watergate brought down Richard Nixon. Going back further in time, Dwight Eisenhower endured a recession, the U2 spy plane embarrassment with the Soviet Union and a prevailing mood of a nation adrift; Harry Truman encountered McCarthyism, the Korean War and several petty scandals; Franklin D. Roosevelt was rebuked in his attempts to expand the Supreme Court and broaden his New Deal programs.
"Second terms have been a challenge for presidents throughout American history," Calabresi said.
Despite his contention that his Nov. 2 election win gave him a mandate to pursue his plans, Bush's approval rating of 49 percent, according to an AP poll, is lower than any such rating for a president at the start of his second term in more than a half-century. The previous two presidents to gain re-election, Reagan and Clinton, each enjoyed approval ratings of about 60 percent just before their second inaugurations, according to Gallup polls.
Bush, though, has shown an ability to rebuke historical trends. In the 2002 elections, he became the first first-term president in decades whose party gained seats in midterm congressional elections. He was re-elected despite having approval ratings that hovered around 50 percent, a historical predictor of electoral defeat. He was the first president in modern times to preside over a net loss in jobs - 850,000 in his case - yet still be sent back to the White House.
Bush can point to solid achievements in his first term, among them the income-tax cuts, his No Child Left Behind educational reforms and Medicare changes that added prescription-drug coverage.
John Lewis Gaddis, a history professor at Yale University, said Bush's greatest achievement is one that many of his countrymen might take for granted in the fourth year without a tragic reprise of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The fact that more than three years have passed without such an attack is significant," Gaddis writes in the current issue of the Foreign Affairs journal. "Few Americans would have thought it likely in the immediate aftermath of September 11. ... The first and most fundamental feature of the Bush strategy _ taking the offensive against the terrorists and thereby surprising them - has so far accomplished its purposes."
By moving from a policy of prevention to one of pre-emption, Gaddis said, Bush "has presided over the most sweeping redesign of U.S. grand strategy since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt."
Many presidential scholars believe that, barring another major terrorist strike or similar catastrophic event in his second term, Bush's ultimate legacy will ride on the outcome of his gamble of trying to install democracy in the heart of the Middle East, with a huge ante already on the table for the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq.
"If it's a gamble that turns out right, then his chances of going down as a great president are way improved," said Paula Baker, an Ohio State University political history professor. "At the moment, it's still a work in progress. What happens with the elections will be important."