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.
But White House senior adviser Karl Rove has told Republican allies that, in the 2000 campaign, Bush suffered from having little new to say in September and October, and that the 2004 campaign plan was drawn up to avoid that mistake.
In 2000, say his advisers, Bush had a prominent political name but little definition as a potential president. Setting out a substantive agenda that defined his claim to compassionate conservatism was an important strategic goal. "The definitional phase of a campaign is the springtime, and the biggest mistake Al Gore made was to allow us to define ourselves," a senior adviser said, adding, "We weren't going to make the mistake we thought Al Gore made."
Which is why, instead of offering his own agenda, Bush has poured tens of millions dollars into television ads attacking Kerry, a strategy they believe was successful in casting Kerry as a flip-flopper, although Kerry and Democratic strategists say it accomplished far less than Bush had hoped.
But Bush advisers said even if they had tried to present a second-term agenda, news from Iraq would have overwhelmed it, and they point to the president's job training initiatives, which have received little attention, as evidence. They also said the president has had to struggle to change public perceptions that the economic recovery has not reached down to help average Americans.
"I think there's a general feeling that we're getting those things right," one Bush adviser said. "But that's a platform on which to build. We have to get those things right, and we have to go from there."
The longer Bush has waited to lay out his agenda, the more that has triggered discussion among policy analysts about what Bush should propose. Will he attempt to run again as a compassionate conservative? Will he claim the mantle of reform by tackling such major issues as the tax code and health care? Or will he frame his agenda under the rubric of an ownership society, designed to appeal to younger voters, by pushing not only Social Security accounts but also other tax-based savings programs for health, education and retirement?
The broadest consensus among analysts is that the president will resurrect his call to alter Social Security by allowing individuals to create personal savings accounts with a portion of their payroll taxes. Early in his presidency, Bush appointed a commission that returned with a series of policy options. But the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and political fears among Republicans on Capitol Hill effectively dashed any chance for action.
Some outside analysts said the federal budget's imbalance will complicate Bush's desire to change Social Security, particularly if he continues to push to make his tax cuts permanent.
"If the administration is reelected . . . it will face a choice between making the tax cuts permanent and pushing Social Security reform," said Peter R. Orszag of the Brookings Institution. He noted that making the tax cuts permanent and fixing the alternative minimum tax would cost about $1.5 trillion, almost exactly the transition costs of setting up personal accounts in Social Security.
Stewart M. Butler of the Heritage Foundation made a similar point about the impact on the budget of making the tax cuts permanent. "There's got to be a real strategy to get entitlements under control," he said.
There is far less consensus on what else Bush should offer for a second term. On health care, Bush has a smorgasbord from which to choose. With Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), a former trial lawyer, on the Democratic ticket, medical liability reform will likely climb higher in the president's list of priorities.
Beyond that, Bush's outside allies expect him to focus on restraining costs through information technology initiatives, a project favored by Gingrich, and by focusing on the cost of prescription drugs. Some Republicans expect Bush to focus more of his attention on the problem of the uninsured, a major initiative of Kerry's.
Bush allies doubt that he will attempt to alter Medicare. Having enacted a prescription drug benefit, several analysts said, makes the chances of revision less likely. "It's too divisive, and Bush wants to say he's fixed Medicare," said Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute. "And they've given away the ice cream, so it's tough to go back and say eat your spinach."
On education, Bush succeeded in enacting his signature issue from 2000, the No Child Left Behind Act, and though that remains controversial, the next frontier appears to be higher education. Kerry has made proposals in this area, and one domestic policy expert close to the White House said he expects Bush to fill out in more detail his ideas for preparing high school graduates for college and making college more affordable.
Bush advisers discount the idea that they have waited too long to unveil a second-term agenda. They note that President Bill Clinton did not unveil his theme of a "bridge to the 21st century" until his convention in 1996. But they say they recognize that victory depends on Bush's ability to convince voters that he has an agenda superior to Kerry's.
"Incumbents who win always run prospectively rather than retrospectively," said Matthew Dowd, senior adviser at Bush's campaign committee. "There are things you have to deal with retrospectively, but in the end it's going to be a prospective election."