Final Year's Realities Push Big Ideas Into Background

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Gone were the grand dreams of remaking Social Security, immigration law or the tax code. In their place were modest initiatives, such as hiring preferences for military spouses. The economic package targeted tax breaks to low- and middle-class workers. And the foreign policy stressed Middle East peacemaking and diplomacy with rogue nations.

President Bush took office with so much derision for the outgoing president that critics defined his attitude toward governing as ABC -- "anything but Clinton." He would not play "small ball," he declared, nor would he coddle North Korea or waste time mediating between the Israelis and Arabs. But as he delivered his final State of the Union address last night, Bush increasingly appeared to be adopting some of his predecessor's approach.

Turning the corner into his last year in office with the nation already voting on who might succeed him, Bush is recalibrating what remains possible in a Congress controlled by the opposition and rethinking the most effective way to get what he wants on the international front. While aides insist he is not dwelling on his legacy, the "unfinished business" agenda he outlined seemed geared toward consolidating past achievements and focusing strategically on where he can win a few more.

"At some point, you realize you're coming to the end of your time in office, and you've got to start making a determination what your legacy is going to be," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.). "And some of the broader, sweeping things you wanted to do at the beginning simply aren't going to be achieved."

For a president who has always favored boldness, it amounts to a dramatic shift. Just a year ago, Bush in the same chamber defied the new Democratic majority with his decision to send more troops to Iraq and challenged lawmakers to overhaul the immigration system. The past year demonstrated that Congress could not force him to change course in Iraq, but neither could he bend it to his will in the domestic arena.

So last night, Bush focused on extending or cementing past initiatives, such as pumping $30 billion more into his anti-AIDS projects in Africa, reauthorizing his No Child Left Behind education program, extending $2 billion in aid to other countries developing clean-energy technology and codifying his policies that steer more federal funds to religious charities. And he reintroduced ideas that have gone nowhere in the past, such as banning cloning, providing health-care tax breaks and making permanent his first-term tax cuts.

His requests were fairly small-bore. He asked for $300 million for scholarships for inner-city students to attend private schools, proposed allowing troops to transfer unused education benefits to relatives, and said he will meet with Canadian and Mexican leaders in New Orleans. On Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, he challenged Congress, which has rejected his proposals, to come up with its own ideas.

"By the State of the Union of the eighth year, reality is the guest in the balcony," said Michael Waldman, Bill Clinton's former chief White House speechwriter. "For him to aim for big-altitude, swing-for-the-fences moments at a time when both parties are competing for who could turn the page from his presidency faster would look silly."

The full-throttle intensity of the presidential campaign framed Bush's speech and underscored his challenge at this point. The address to Congress came two days after a Democratic primary in South Carolina and just 10 hours before polls were to open in Florida. No president has delivered a State of the Union with the campaign to succeed him so far along.

"He's totally eclipsed," said Elaine Kamarck, who was a senior adviser to former vice president Al Gore. "Nothing he says is going to be important for anything that happens in the next 12 months. The speech is a nonevent."

White House officials reject that, of course. Presidential counselor Ed Gillespie called Bush's final-year agenda "forward-looking" and "action-oriented." Gillespie and other Bush advisers point to energy legislation passed at the end of last year and the deal with House Democrats over a $150 billion economic stimulus package last week as evidence of Bush's continued political capacity.

While he acknowledged that the window for action on Capitol Hill is closing, Gillespie said he hopes it will remain open until the political conventions this summer. If anything, he argued, the campaign may act as a magnet for partisan fervor, allowing room for those back in Washington to sit down and figure out some issues. "With the presidential campaign being as heated, maybe I'm naive, but I think that may be to our benefit," Gillespie said.

Bush enjoys one other advantage that no predecessor has had in eight decades: Since neither he nor his vice president is running, he has more freedom to focus on his agenda. William A. Galston, another Gore adviser, recalled the tension of Clinton's last year in office. "You have to ask yourself at every stop along the way -- 'If I do X as president, how is that going to affect the odds that my administration is going to receive the ultimate vindication, which is my vice president elected to succeed me?' " Galston said. "And I don't think George Bush has felt that at all."

As it happens, the campaign has focused attention on the question of presidential legacies, although as much on Ronald Reagan's and Clinton's as on Bush's. With Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) debating the meaning of Reagan's impact versus her husband's, and Republican candidates heading to Reagan's library tomorrow to argue about who is more like the Gipper, Bush often seems left on the sideline. At the same time, some Republicans said the recent debate highlights how fluid history can be, with Bush's best hope for validation lying someday in the future.

"Legacies are constantly changing. Historical reputations are constantly changing," said Frank J. Donatelli, who was White House political director under Reagan. "If we were talking about Ronald Reagan in 1987, that was Iran-contra. There was even talk of impeachment. But obviously that isn't the lasting reputation. What President Bush would hope is that history judges him like Harry Truman."

At the moment, though, he does bear some resemblance to Clinton. After years of confrontation with North Korea, Bush made a deal to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program, a pact that in some ways mirrors Clinton's agreement in the 1990s. After years of eschewing direct involvement in Middle East peace talks, he has embarked on an intensive personal effort to reach a deal by the end of his presidency.

Not everyone appreciates the approach. Conservatives have assailed the turnabout in policy, although some pin the blame on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rather than criticizing Bush. "I think the State Department's policies resemble Clinton's," said John R. Bolton, Bush's former U.N. ambassador. "I think Bush focuses on Iraq, where his policies are not Clintonian. Too bad there's not more of him to go around."

Either way, Bush recognizes that time is short and his opportunities to shape events more limited with each passing day. "I'm on a timetable," he told reporters during his trip to the Middle East this month. "I've got 12 months."

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