President Bush turned abruptly last night from the martial rhetoric that had marked the first year of his reelection campaign and unveiled fall themes emphasizing his quest for peace abroad and his plans to make the nation more prosperous through what he called "a new era of ownership."
Bush said his goals include improving accountability in high school education and making health care more available and affordable. Responding to the economic hardships that have hurt his approval ratings, Bush said he wants to make the nation "even more job-friendly" through such longtime conservative goals as restraining regulations, taxes and lawsuits.
"This nation is on a rising path, and with four more years we'll achieve more growth, new and higher-paying jobs, and greater opportunity for all of our citizens," Bush told 7,000 Republicans who had paid at least $2,500 apiece to hear him. "We will continue to lead the cause of freedom and peace, and we will prevail."
Bush's address at the Washington Convention Center contained the first formal hints of his plans for a second term, which he had frustrated many supporters by withholding while failing to gain a lead over Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), his Democratic opponent.
Bush's new agenda is heavier on business goals than the "compassionate conservatism" he espoused in his previous campaign. He delighted the crowd by renewing his support for industry-friendly measures that have failed to pass during his first term, most notably an energy policy that would encourage more domestic production, as well as limits on lawsuits and damage awards for medical malpractice.
"You cannot be pro-small-business and pro-trial-lawyer at the same time," Bush said, referring to the profession of Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.).
Bush did not give policy specifics, but his advisers said he is planning an education agenda that is a successor to the No Child Left Behind Act that he signed in 2002. "Now we must move forward and make certain that our high schools are doing their jobs, as well," he said. "Every high school diploma must mean that our graduates are prepared for jobs, for college and for success."
Aides said Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, had hoped to make the addition of private accounts to Social Security a centerpiece of the campaign. With older voters in Florida and elsewhere remaining skeptical, Bush will talk often about the issue but will emphasize the need to work out the specifics with Congress rather than offering a plan of his own, the aides said.
Bush's "opportunity society" agenda will also call for measures to promote homeownership, as well as retirement savings accounts, which would increase the amount that could be saved with taxes deferred, and lifetime savings accounts, which would give tax advantages to saving for education, medical costs and other expenses.
"During the next four years, we'll help more citizens to own their health plan, to own a piece of their retirement, to own their own home or their own small businesses," Bush said. "We'll usher in a new era of ownership in America, with an agenda to help all our citizens save and build and invest, so every person owns a part of the American dream."
One senior administration official said that much of the agenda will consist of repackaged "smaller items played up as big-ticket." Bush is constrained in what he can propose by a budget deficit that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated at about $450 billion for this year and expects will continue for the next decade.
Bush, hailing an "advancing and confident country," spoke five days before Democrats open their national convention in Boston, six weeks before the Republican convention in New York and 104 days before the election. A poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found what the center's analysis called "mostly good signs for Kerry," whose party dominated on domestic issues and was at least competitive with Republicans on every issue except the handling of terrorism.
The president included a vigorous defense of his decision to invade Iraq, despite the loss of about 900 U.S. troops. "We've turned the corner in extending freedom throughout the world," he said.
Bush said the nation's long-term safety requires changing "the conditions that give rise to terrorism in the Middle East -- the poverty, and the hopelessness, and the resentments that terrorists too often exploit."
Showing that he is not ending his attacks, Bush laced the 35-minute speech with barbs at Kerry and Edwards. "Whether their message is delivered with a frown or a smile, it is the same old pessimism," Bush said. "And to cheer us up, they propose higher taxes, more federal spending and economic isolationism."
A Kerry campaign spokesman, Phil Singer, called the speech a rehash, saying it was "difficult to spot what was new about it besides the hype."
Bush plans to lie low at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., during the Democratic convention, then begin promoting his agenda during a Midwest swing late next week, including a Saturday bus trip.