New Team, Old Plan

By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The second-term White House shake-up is an old tradition, driven variously by scandal, exhaustion and ambition. Presidents need to be protected and reinvigorated. Scapegoats for past failures need to be dumped. The Bush administration is undergoing this ritual. There's a new White House chief of staff. The press secretary has resigned. Karl Rove has lost one of his two jobs. Other changes are rumored. This is, on the evidence so far, mostly a public relations exercise.

The administration's central problem is its policies, not the people executing the policies. Some new players may outperform the old: They may call the right senator at the right time, cope better with unforeseen calamities (Hurricane Katrina) or provide stronger public defenses of administration actions. But these improvements, should they occur, cannot offset larger failings. These relate to Bush's agenda -- or lack of agenda. If you're driving in the wrong direction, or not driving at all, changing chauffeurs doesn't help.

In offering this appraisal, I'm staying away from Iraq and terrorism -- subjects on which I have no special insights. Instead I'm concentrating on domestic policies that I know better: the budget, taxes, health care, energy policy and immigration. On all these, the nation has serious business to do. But the administration isn't doing it.

We should be preparing for aging baby boomers. Projected Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid costs could expand the federal budget by 30 to 40 percent by 2030. To limit these huge increases -- implying much higher taxes or draconian cuts in other programs -- we should gradually raise eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare, as well as curb benefits for wealthier retirees. Instead, Bush worsened the outlook by enacting the biggest-ever expansion of Medicare. The new drug benefit will cost $792 billion from 2006 to 2015, the Congressional Budget Office estimates. Not surprisingly, Bush's ill-fated Social Security plan also would have increased spending.

On energy, we need a grand compromise between producers and environmentalists. We have sizable natural gas and oil reserves in Alaska and along the offshore continental shelves. Many are now off-limits to exploration and production; they shouldn't be. But greater conservation is also imperative. In 2005 the United States had 226 million cars and trucks; by 2030 that will rise 46 percent, to 330 million, the Energy Information Administration projects.

Unless these vehicles become vastly more efficient, fuel demand will reach unmanageable levels. Much tougher fuel economy standards and a higher energy tax would move us in the right direction. Bush spent four years on an energy bill that, despite some good provisions, won't substantially improve either production or conservation.

You can go down the list. Unless we control health costs, they will squeeze out other public and private spending. In 1993 health-care spending was 13.8 percent of national income (gross domestic product); in 2005 it was 16.2 percent of GDP. The administration promotes health savings accounts, but by its own projections, these won't help much. In 2015, health-care spending will hit an estimated 20 percent of GDP. Similarly, unless we curb the flow of poor immigrants, we will inexorably expand the nation's poverty rolls. Bush opposes illegal immigration (who doesn't?) but would legalize many of the same people by reclassifying them as "guest workers." The social consequences would be similar. Bush's notion that most would go home is a fantasy.

Shuffling top presidential aides can't redeem this bleak record. To be fair, all these are hard problems; none has simple solutions. But sensible policies could lessen them all. Barring a miraculous recovery of his political fortunes, Bush has largely missed his chance to provide these. The needed steps are often initially unpopular; raising gas taxes or Medicare's eligibility age wouldn't be a crowd-pleaser. A popular president might take the risk. An unpopular president will be less inclined -- and less likely to succeed if he does.

Bush's heavy reliance on Republican congressional support creates a further obstacle. The Republicans are defecting "because they're up [for reelection], and he's not," says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Meanwhile, "Democrats have zero reason to bail him out."

For this failure, Bush bears most of the blame. He equates his own short-term political interests with the nation's long-term interests. How else to explain the Medicare drug benefit, a mega-handout intended mainly to win votes among seniors? He seems to mistake stubbornness for judgment and rigidity for principle. How else to explain his obsession with tax cuts, designed to please the Republican base, without any parallel discipline on spending?

The Bush mind-set produces proposals that speak to partisan preferences more than national needs. Therefore, they do not command broad public respect. Having governed from a narrow base at home, he has left his presidency hostage to events abroad. It is a precarious place to be.

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