President Bush vowed yesterday to use the "political capital" gained from his victory on Tuesday to push an aggressive domestic agenda in a second term, beginning with limiting medical malpractice lawsuits and continuing with revamping the tax code and adding private accounts to Social Security.
At a news conference a day after Sen. John F. Kerry conceded, Bush spoke repeatedly about his desire to unify the country, including Democrats who did their best to evict him from power. But he also made it clear that he views the election returns -- especially a 3 percent margin of victory in the popular vote that he said reflected "the will of the people" -- as a mandate to pursue conservative priorities and to continue a governing style that has rarely accommodated the opposition.
"I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style," he said. "I'm going to spend it for what I told the people I'd spend it on, which is -- you've heard the agenda: Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror."
In both words and tone, Bush conveyed exceptional self-assurance as he jauntily parried with reporters and served notice that he expects Congress to move with dispatch on his agenda. The message was unmistakable: that Bush intends to be the capital's dominant political and policy force, and that the election returns mean that other players should move to accommodate his priorities, not simply meet in the middle.
"I really didn't come here to hold the office just to say, 'Gosh, it was fun to serve,' " he said. "I came here to get some things done, and we are doing it."
Bush, whose domestic agenda has been largely overshadowed by war and terrorism, said he will "start on Social Security now" by beginning to work with lawmakers who support allowing workers to put some of their payroll taxes into stocks and bonds. "We must lead on Social Security because the system is not going to be whole for our children and our grandchildren," he said.
But several officials said a detailed proposal on Social Security is likely to be held until 2006, ensuring that it looms large before the congressional midterm election. Democrats contend Bush's plan is a way to weaken the federal retirement system. Bush said he will "readily concede I've laid out some very difficult issues for people to deal with."
"Reforming the Social Security system for generations to come is a difficult issue; otherwise, it would have already been done," he said. "But it is necessary to confront it. And I would hope to be able to work with Democrats to get this done."
Bush said the "groundwork has been laid" on Capitol Hill for his longtime interest in limiting lawsuits, and administration officials said they are ready to move quickly with a legislative package on curbing the amount of damages that can be won with lawsuits against doctors. The idea was among his biggest applause lines this year when speaking to GOP donors at campaign fundraisers.
As another top priority, Bush said he will work to make the tax code simpler and more fair. He said he believes certain incentives should be built into a rewritten code -- for example, provisions to encourage charitable giving and homeownership. He said the changes would be "revenue-neutral" -- not a hidden way of raising taxes and reducing the deficit, as some of his critics have charged.
"If there was a need to raise taxes, I'd say, 'Let's have a tax bill that raises taxes,' as opposed to 'Let's simply the tax code and sneak a tax increase on the people.' It's just not my style. I don't believe we need to raise taxes. I've said that to the American people. And so the simplification would be the goal."
Facing a huge federal deficit and his promise to cut it in half over five years, Bush made no mention of a tax cut, and administration officials said none is in the offing.
Bush also said he plans to move quickly on his education proposals, including a plan to add accountability for high schools.
On foreign policy, Bush listed the fight against terrorism first when he was citing his priorities. He declined to estimate the cost of continuing operations in Iraq, saying that the United States would work with the government of Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to "achieve our objective, which is elections, on the path to stability, and we'll continue to train the troops."
"Our commanders will have that which they need to complete their missions," he said.
Bush asserted that democracy is still possible in Iraq and throughout the Middle East: "If we are interested in protecting our country for the long term, the best way to do so is to promote freedom and democracy."
He said he will continue to work for a Palestinian state coexisting peacefully with Israel, saying that when he laid out that vision in the Rose Garden in 2002, he "meant it when I said it, and I mean it now."
Other administration officials said they expect relations with Iran to dominate the foreign policy agenda. The administration has accused Iran of harboring terrorists and running a nuclear weapons program.
Bush made no effort to hide his high spirits, teasing reporters and calling on them by last name only, in the fashion of a football coach. He has always chafed at reporters' tendency to ask follow-ups and to string multiple questions into one, and yesterday he announced that he will no longer permit it. "Now that I've got the will of the people at my back, I'm going to start enforcing the one-question rule," he said.
The news conference's most reflective moments concerned the reaction of former president George H.W. Bush to his son's achievement of the reelection he was denied. The president recalled that his father, who spent election night in the White House, was still sitting upstairs at 3:30 a.m. as returns came in. Kerry did not concede until later that day.
"I finally said, 'Go to bed,' " Bush recalled. "He was awaiting the outcome and was hopeful that we would go over and be able to talk to our supporters, and it just didn't happen that way."
Bush said that when his father woke up, he asked him to come by the Oval Office before heading home to Houston.
"We had a good talk," the president said. "There was some uncertainty about that morning as to when the election would actually end. And it wasn't clear at that point in time, so I never got to see him face to face to watch his, I guess, pride in his tired eyes as his son got a second term. I did talk to him, and he was relieved. I told him to get a nap. I was worried about him staying up too late."
Presidential advisers said Bush is relishing the prospect of a freer hand with Congress, as the expanded margin of GOP control will give him more flexibility to pursue his policies.
"After hundreds of speeches and three debates and interviews and the whole process, where you keep basically saying the same thing over and over again, that when you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view, and that's what I intend to tell the Congress," he said.
Bush hedged when asked about changes in his Cabinet, and declined to speculate about possible nominees to the Supreme Court.
For the second day in a row, Bush said he plans to reach out to his opponents, joking at the start of the 40-minute session, "I pledged to reach out to the whole nation, and today I'm proving that I'm willing to reach out to everybody by including the White House press corps."
But one key adviser said the White House has calculated there is little to be gained from courting Democrats, since the expected fights over Supreme Court nominations would just undo the goodwill.
"This isn't a guy who pivots," said a presidential adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity so White House officials will continue to talk candidly to him. "There's no point in a lot of outreach in the next 90 days that would be rendered moot by the first retirement from the court, and he's not going to do it."
Another adviser said after speaking to Bush's top aides, "They feel the Bush brand is strong, and they feel no need to re-brand him."
Bush has held the fewest news conferences of any president since records have been kept. This was Bush's 16th solo news conference. At this point in their presidencies, Bill Clinton had held 42 news conferences and Bush's father had held 83, according to figures compiled by Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University.
The meeting was in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House -- a setting that is more formal than the briefing room but less imposing than the East Room, the traditional site of prime-time news conferences.
Bush said he feels refreshed, both by the outcome and by the sleep he got after a marathon night that some of his aides in what is ordinarily an early-to-bed White House were calling "the Republican Woodstock."
Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.