A Gambler Decides to Raise the Stakes

By Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 29, 2005

President Bush made a huge gamble last night in a bid to restore momentum to his flagging proposal to restructure Social Security -- and to his presidency.

With two in three Americans disapproving of the way Bush has handled Social Security, many political observers thought it would be prudent for Bush to cut his losses and negotiate a bipartisan compromise on Social Security, perhaps without the personal accounts he has promoted for the past several months.

Instead, Bush held a prime-time news conference and doubled down on his bet. He continued to press for private accounts while adding a proposal that would cut Social Security spending by $3 trillion over 75 years -- openly defying the longtime belief that proposing cuts in the beloved program is bad politics.

The president's gamble was presented modestly last night, as a plan to help the working poor. "I propose a Social Security system in the future where benefits for low-income workers will grow faster than benefits for people who are better off," he said in a brief opening statement.

Democrats immediately branded Bush's proposal a massive cut in Social Security. And conservative Republicans worried that the new plan would eventually doom the private accounts they prefer, and prove costly for the party in next year's midterm elections.

Whatever the merits of Bush's new proposal, the president has taken another one of the bold strokes that worked so well for him in his first term. After a 60-day campaign failed to produce enthusiasm for his proposal for personal accounts, Bush is trying to sell his plan as a boon to the working poor at the expense of wealthier Americans. This time, he is calculating that he can apply enough pressure on Democrats up for reelection in 2006 to support his plan.

The outcome of Bush's bet will have an impact far beyond Social Security. If he succeeds, he will regain control of a national agenda that has slipped from his grasp in recent months. If he fails, he risks early admission into the lame-duck status that eventually afflicts all second-term presidents.

One hundred days ago, Bush began his second term with great confidence and a bold agenda: He would enact major Social Security and energy legislation, and win confirmation of strong conservatives to top positions in the judiciary and throughout the administration. Expanded and unified Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress would approve his tax and spending cuts.

Instead, Bush finds that Americans have turned against him on Social Security, and some moderate Republicans are joining a united Democratic Party in opposition. A key Bush nomination -- ambassador to the United Nations -- is in trouble in the Senate, and the No. 2 Republican in the House, Tom DeLay (Tex.), is dogged by an ethics controversy. Meanwhile, high gas prices, jittery financial markets and criticism over the Terri Schiavo case have contributed to a Bush popularity that has equaled the lowest levels of his presidency.

Bush said last night that he is not discouraged by the reversals. "We're asking people to do things that haven't been done for 20 years," he said. "We haven't addressed the Social Security problem since 1983. We haven't had an energy strategy in our country for decades. So I'm not surprised that some are balking at doing hard work. But I have a duty as the president to define problems facing our nation and to call upon people to act. And we're just really getting started in the process."

Throughout his first term, Bush's bold strokes served him well: Despite losing the popular vote, he enacted major tax cuts and education legislation and led the nation in two wars. He repeatedly gambled on major policy matters by refusing to compromise -- and he repeatedly won, gaining more power each time.

But an end to Bush's winning streak in the second term could cause the opposite phenomenon. "It's important when a [president] makes a major decision, that is resolved in [his] favor more times than not," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). Otherwise, he said, presidential power is gradually drained.

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