President Eager to Spend His New ‘Political Capital’
Declaring that this year’s election had armed him with fresh “political capital,” President Bush said Thursday he would use that asset to try to fundamentally change Social Security and alter the federal tax code -- twin goals certain to provoke strong opposition.
Exuding confidence at his first news conference after his victory in a contentious election, Bush said he hoped to work with Democrats in pursuing his agenda. But he left little doubt that if need be, he would press ahead without them.
“I earned capital in the campaign -- political capital -- and now I intend to spend it,” he said. “It is my style. That’s what happened after the 2000 election: I earned some capital. I’ve earned capital in this election, and I’m going to spend it for what I told the people I’d spend it on.”
The agenda, he said, included “Social Security and tax reform, moving this economy forward, education, fighting and winning the war on terror.”
In spotlighting his ambitious agenda, the president clearly was buoyed by his solid win over Sen. John F. Kerry in the nation’s popular vote.
Unofficial returns showed the president with slightly more than 59 million votes (about 52%) to Kerry’s 55.4 million (about 48%). That made Bush the first presidential candidate since his father in 1988 to capture more than 50% of the vote. And it contrasted with the 2000 election, when Bush eked out an electoral-vote win despite losing the popular vote.
Bush’s apparent eagerness to aggressively push his major initiatives also reflected an awareness among senior White House officials that most second-term presidents enjoyed a small window of opportunity in which to enact their priorities before another election season got underway and the incumbent was hindered by lame-duck status.
Appearing relaxed and in good humor throughout the 40-minute news conference, Bush said he would begin contemplating changes to his Cabinet and White House personnel this weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.
“I haven’t made any decisions on the Cabinet yet,” he said.
Speculation has been rife in Washington that U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft would be among the first senior officials to leave their posts during Bush’s second term -- a departure that would create a high-profile opening for the president to fill.
The prospect of at least one vacancy on the Supreme Court in the near future has arisen with the news that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has thyroid cancer. Emphasizing that he would deal with vacancies on the court if and when they occurred, Bush reiterated that his nominees would know “the difference between personal opinion and the strict interpretation of the law.”
Bush made the case anew for his Iraq policy, the issue that dominated much of the presidential campaign.
“Every American has a stake in the outcome of this war,” he said. “We will persevere until the enemy is defeated. We will stay strong and resolute.”
As he did Wednesday after Kerry conceded the presidential race to him, Bush sounded conciliatory notes in the wake of a campaign marked by harsh rhetoric and bitter attacks by both sides.
“The campaign over, Americans are expecting a bipartisan effort and results,” he said. “I will reach out to everyone who shares our goals.”
And after having sharply assailed Kerry’s foreign policy views during the campaign, Bush said, “Democrats want a free and peaceful world.”
But administration officials made it clear that there would be limits to the president’s efforts toward bipartisanship.
“His arm is only so long. It’s important for others to reach back as well,” said White House press secretary Scott McClellan.
The president vowed to press for legislative action as soon as possible on three major domestic goals: a sweeping overhaul of Social Security, broad changes in the federal tax code and an expansion of his education program, which requires large-scale standardized testing of students to hold schools accountable.
But he steered clear of detailing his plans, which are certain to be controversial.
He said he thought his education proposals “could move pretty quickly, because there’s been a lot of discussion about education; it’s an issue that the members [of Congress] are used to debating.”
But he acknowledged that Social Security and tax changes likely would need considerably more legwork.
Kerry, expressing the views of most Democratic leaders, had said during the campaign that he opposed efforts to privatize Social Security.
On taxes, Bush said his goals were to simplify the tax code and encourage savings and investments. He said he favored keeping the current provisions that made mortgage interest and charitable contributions tax-deductible.
Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security would grant younger workers the option of diverting some of their Social Security payroll taxes into personal savings accounts that they would manage themselves.
During the campaign, he did not mention that such a move could incur transition costs. He mentioned this Thursday, but did not offer estimates.
Some program experts say the costs could reach as much as $2 trillion over 10 years, because the system would have to pay benefits to current beneficiaries and to those who will soon retire, even while it loses some revenue to the new, private accounts.
But the president argued that the cost of inaction would be greater. “If it were easy, it would have already been done,” he said, adding that it was “going to be hard work to bring people together” on his plan.
Bush also prodded Congress to complete work on reforming the government’s intelligence community, raising an issue many on Capitol Hill thought he might abandon once the political pressure of the election had passed.
The White House has at times seemed lukewarm in its support for significant restructuring of the intelligence community, including the proposal to create a national intelligence director.
Bush’s call Thursday for “an effective intelligence reform bill” that he could sign could rekindle congressional negotiations that collapsed before the election. But Democrats remained skeptical, and senior House Republican aides said they had gotten no new direction from the White House since the talks broke down.
Times staff writers Greg Miller and Doyle McManus contributed to this report.