President Is Still Mum on Agenda For Second Term
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page A01
As he campaigned around the country last week, President Bush asked voters to give him another four years to make the nation "safer and stronger and better." But with the election less than four months away, one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the president's campaign is what he would actually do if he wins a second term.
Bush's failure to detail a second-term agenda -- beyond his pledge to keep waging an aggressive war on terrorism -- represents a stark contrast to his previous campaigns, in which he set out a handful of priorities almost from the opening day and rarely deviated from them.
Throughout the year, Bush has focused on Iraq and terrorism and on drawing attention to improved economic statistics, but has barely begun to make the case about second-term priorities. Whether there is room for a bold domestic agenda, given the fiscal strains his first term has created, and whether Bush has fresh ideas on issues such as health care, education and the economy are questions yet to be answered.
Bush's advisers, in a series of interviews in recent days, were quick to rebut those questions. They asserted that there will be a vigorous new agenda and challenged those who have suggested that a second-term blueprint could be little more than a warmed-over version of what Bush ran on in 2000 but has failed to enact.
They said Bush plans to use the period around the time of the Republican National Convention in late August to put forward the main elements of a new agenda in an effort to draw a clear contrast with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and seize control of the debate during the final two months of the campaign.
"After their [the Democrats] convention is over and we're into the August phase and into our convention, we will begin aggressively talking about the president's vision for the next four years," White House communications director Dan Bartlett said.
Said another adviser: "We are going to have a window after the Democratic convention and at our convention where people are going to say, what are you going to do the next four years? We will robustly seize that opportunity."
The details remain closely held. Presidential advisers said elements of the plan have been agreed to, with debate still underway on others. Fighting terrorism remains paramount to the president, and on domestic issues there is a consensus outside the administration that Bush is likely to renew his call for changes in Social Security.
Outside analysts are in far less agreement on whether, beyond calling for making his tax cuts permanent, Bush will push for significant tax law revisions or simplification. Bush's education focus may shift to higher education, while his health care agenda is likely to focus on some combination of medical liability reform, efforts to curb rising costs with the help of information technology and programs to reduce the number of Americans without health insurance.
Bush began this campaign year sketching out several new initiatives, including the manned exploration of the moon and eventually Mars and immigration reform. Neither, however, captured sustained attention or support. Another major proposal, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, was soundly defeated in the Senate last week.
Waiting until his convention to offer a campaign agenda represents a major strategic shift for Bush. Some administration allies worry that the time is late to introduce a new agenda and expect voters to digest it and give the president a mandate to implement it. And Bush's political team declined to say whether they will use their advertising dollars this fall to push that agenda, or continue to attack Kerry.
But former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said he agrees with the White House decision to wait, and predicted an ambitious package when it is unveiled. "I am told by people who have heard him talk privately that it is very powerful, that he's deeply, passionately committed and in many ways wants to stake his place in history in achieving substantial change in the country, not just as the president who led the war on terror," Gingrich said.
One Bush adviser said, "The general feeling is we've got to have the same ambition and clarity we're bringing to the international agenda to some important domestic policy issues. . . . I don't think it's accurate to say we're making a turn. It's accurate to say we're filling out a message."
Four years ago, Bush ran on an agenda that included big tax cuts, education reform, a faith-based initiative, military modernization, missile defense and Social Security reform -- all of it unveiled long before the GOP convention that summer.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company