WASHINGTON – Buoyed by what the White House calls a “mandate” at the polls, President Bush signaled Thursday that he will swiftly pursue a far-reaching second-term agenda that includes reforming Social Security and overhauling the nation’s tax code.
In his first news conference since re-election, the president emphasized that fighting terrorism, reforming intelligence gathering and protecting America are important challenges for both Republicans and Democrats. Should a vacancy appear on the Supreme Court, he vowed to nominate a judge “who knows the difference between personal opinion and the strict interpretation of the law.”
Bush called bipartisan cooperation a “model” for which he will strive. But he also made it clear that he believes his popular-vote majority and an enlarged GOP majority in Congress lend him muscle for his agenda, with or without the help of Democrats.
“Let me put it to you this way: I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” Bush said Thursday, his elation evident in a 40-minute exchange with reporters in a theaterlike room of the Old Executive Office Building.
Bush, bantering at times with reporters, described how he views his electoral mandate: “I’ve got the will of the people at my back.”
The president allowed that “there will be some changes” in his Cabinet, but he also insisted he had given no thought to the lineup of his new administration. He said he would begin this deliberation as he headed Thursday afternoon to the presidential retreat of Camp David.
On the controversial subject of Iraq, Bush maintained that free elections will be held there and the American military will help ensure the path is clear for a vote. But Bush said he has seen no indication of a need for additional troops in that country.
Bush’s tumultuous first term already has proven to be, as Vice President Dick Cheney termed it following the defeat of Democratic rival John Kerry this week, “a consequential presidency.” Now the president is intent on fulfilling some of the first term’s unfinished business while pursuing a still more ambitious second-term agenda.
The unfinished work includes an overhaul of Social Security, enabling younger workers to privately invest some of their retirement savings. This, Bush conceded Thursday, may be the one issue that will require cooperation from minority-party Democrats in Congress.
“With the campaign over,” Bush said, “Americans are expecting a bipartisan effort and results.” The president, according to White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, believes the 2004 election has provided him “a very clear mandate from the American people.”
Not everyone reads Bush’s victory as a mandate, however. Although he is the first president since his father to win a clear majority of the popular vote, he did not face a threatening third-party rival splitting the vote, as Democrat Bill Clinton did with Ross Perot. And the president’s majority of 51 percent falls short of a landslide.
“This is not 59-41, which is what Reagan had,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the independent opinion-polling Pew Research Center in Washington. “That 51 percent says that most Americans preferred the president and his approach over the alternative, but it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the last four years.”
“He and the Republican Party do have the power, but in the end they are going to have to acknowledge the fact that there are an awful lot of people in this country, and in some (issues) a majority, that do not agree with him,” Kohut said. “If they ignore the issues on which there is real disagreement, I think they do it at their own peril.”
But Bush said the campaign clearly laid out the issues, and voters knew what they were choosing.
For instance, Bush noted, he campaigned for re-election virtually every day with a promise to reform Social Security, and he intends to keep that promise. While Democrats insist his goal of privatizing some retirement savings will undermine the system, Bush maintains that doing nothing about Social Security will leave it under-funded for future generations.
“I readily concede I’ve laid out some very difficult issues for people to deal with,” Bush said. “And I would hope to be able to work with Democrats to get this done. I’m not sure we can get it done without Democratic participation, because it is a big issue.”
There are other issues Bush maintains are ripe for action. These include curtailing “frivolous lawsuits,” which he blames for obstetricians giving up their practices due to hefty malpractice insurance costs, and for businesses hiring fewer workers than they would like to employ because of commercial liability insurance.
Democrats, aligned with a trial lawyers’ lobby that underwrites political campaigns, balk at Bush’s goals for such “tort reform,” including a limit on the money that victims of malpractice can win from juries.
Bush said he has no illusions about the difficulty of enacting major legislation. “I’ve been wisened to the ways of Washington,” the former Texas governor said. “I’ve watched what can happen during certain parts of the cycle, where politics get in the way of good policy.”
While he will seek the “model” of bipartisan agreement that helped enact his education reforms, he said he is “focused on results.” He pointed to Medicare prescription drug benefits that he won over the opposition of Democratic leaders who viewed them as inadequate.
“I came here to get some things done,” Bush said.
Perhaps the biggest thing he hopes to get done in the next four years is a simplification of the federal tax system. This means “a fair system,” Bush explained. “Loopholes wouldn’t be there for special interests,” he said, and the tax laws would “encourage people to invest and save.”
Bush has stopped short of endorsing any one plan, such as a “flat tax” rate that everyone pays or a national sales tax. He instead is asking a nonpartisan commission to study the matter and make recommendations.
Looking abroad, Bush reaffirmed his “two-state vision,” urging Israelis “to have a peaceful Palestinian state living on their border.” And he vowed to “reach out to our friends and allies” in the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Yet Bush maintained a certain defiance he has shown since invasion of Iraq. “I’ve made some very hard decisions – decisions to protect ourselves, decisions to spread peace and freedom,” the president said. “I understand in certain capitals and certain countries those decisions were not popular.”