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Editorial

Inauguration Day

Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A24

IT IS ENTICING to think of Inauguration Day as a fresh start, even for a second-term president: a time to wipe the slate clean, to pocket past victories, forgive old errors and move on. President Bush himself embraced such a vision, from one perspective, when he said last week that he saw no need to hold any senior officials accountable for what critics view as first-term misjudgments about Iraq. "We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 election," he told interviewers from The Post. Mr. Bush's political opponents like to imagine a fresh start from a different perspective. The president, they say, has a chance to be what (in their view) he failed to be the first time around: a uniter, an alliance-builder, a deficit hawk, a Middle East dove.

Both of these perspectives are infused with a fair dose of wishful thinking. We, too, would like to see Mr. Bush alter his tone in numerous spheres and change course on numerous policies. But it doesn't seem likely that the freshly reelected president will deviate sharply from what, to his mind, seems to have been working pretty well. By the same token, Mr. Bush may wish that the election had ended any second-guessing of his first-term decisions. But the reckoning will continue, not because we or anyone else have a different idea of accountability (though we assuredly do) but because the consequences of his first-term decisions are bound to inform and define his second term.

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Nowhere is this more true than in Iraq. Mr. Bush took an enormous gamble in 2003; we agreed that U.S. security justified the risk but felt that the president did not invest the forethought or resources commensurate with the gamble. Now he remains, appropriately, committed to seeing it through: to sticking with Iraqis who are seeking to make democracy work and to helping them as they struggle to establish new institutions and train a new army. Though the United States is capable of doing more than one job at a time, Mr. Bush's ability to meet other foreign policy challenges -- from China to Darfur, from AIDS in Africa to democracy in Latin America -- will be shaped by U.S. progress, or lack of progress, in Iraq.

First-term decisions constrain Mr. Bush in domestic policy as well. He is not responsible for the vast, long-term fiscal challenges presented by the aging of the baby boom generation, the explosion of health care costs, the decline in national savings rates and the corresponding rise in U.S. debt to foreigners. But he is responsible, aided and abetted by Congress, for the long-term reduction in tax revenue, especially from the upper classes, that if not reversed will limit the available options to respond to these challenges. To the extent that the resulting constraints force a reduction in government spending, Mr. Bush probably will not object, though poor Americans may pay the highest price. But the disappearance of the surplus, which Mr. Bush helped engineer in his first term, also makes entitlement reforms more difficult, thus complicating one of his chief second-term goals.

Mr. Bush faces other limitations, too, some stemming from his first-term performance, others inevitable in a second-term presidency. His own party, with its success no longer tied to his reelection, already is proving more fractious: fiscal conservatives bemoaning the deficit more loudly, social conservatives complaining more insistently about the president's lukewarm support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. It can't be entirely a good sign when a leading House Republican proclaims your Social Security proposal "a dead horse" before it has even been formulated. Many Democrats, meanwhile, feeling that Mr. Bush rolled them in the first term, are in no mood to compromise this time around. And only 52 percent of Americans approve of Mr. Bush's performance overall, according to the latest Post-ABC News poll; Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan enjoyed better than 60 percent support as they began their second terms.

Perhaps the only safe prediction is that Mr. Bush's second term, like the first, will be shaped by events that are unexpected. The one we now all know to fear is another attack, perhaps more catastrophic than Sept. 11; Mr. Bush is right to make prevention of and defense against such an attack his first priority. As to other unforeseen perils, all we can do is join with other Americans in wishing for Mr. Bush the strength, wisdom and humility that he will need to face them. It is Inauguration Day, after all, and if that cannot deliver to Mr. Bush a clean slate, it can be the occasion for all Americans, blue-staters and red-staters alike, to wish him and the country success in the coming four years.


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