To Still Midterm Waters, Bush’s Agenda Is Cautious

Times Staff Writer

Chastened. Deferential. Modest.

These are not words that have typically described President Bush’s agenda or his approach to advancing his ideas, at home or abroad.

But they capture the distinctive elements of the State of the Union address Bush delivered Tuesday after a grueling 2005 that sent his public approval ratings plummeting to the lowest levels of his presidency.

Bush was as resolute and confident as ever in defending his strategy for fighting terrorism, his determination to promote democracy in the Middle East and his decision to invade Iraq. Although he did not threaten military action, he was also firm in warning Iran against continuing to move toward nuclear weapons.


But on domestic policy, the president struck the tone of a man searching for a fresh start. With his own job performance numbers and approval ratings for the Republican-controlled Congress sagging only 10 months before the 2006 elections, Bush mostly advanced a cautious agenda that seemed to aim less at transforming the political debate than at helping the GOP survive a hostile political environment.

After unabashedly defining himself as a “wartime president” in his reelection campaign, Bush on Tuesday stressed his commitment to kitchen-table economic concerns such as healthcare and the availability of good jobs.

After building his 2005 State of the Union around an ambitious effort to remake Social Security, Bush offered modestly sized proposals that might be much easier for Congress to digest.

It spoke volumes that he now proposed not to remake Social Security but to restudy it, with the appointment of a bipartisan commission to examine the structure of all federal entitlement programs for the aged. Nor did Bush say a word about fundamental restructuring of the tax code, which the administration once envisioned as its next great overhaul after Social Security.

“It looks like he’s trying to move a little away from the high-concept ideas toward things he might actually be able to deliver on,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.

The speech also was noteworthy in urging more bipartisan cooperation, after a year that saw party-line voting in Congress reach some of the highest levels in the last half century, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly.

As this election year takes shape, one crucial question may be how long the generally conciliatory tone Bush struck will drive the White House political message.

Many observers believe a better predictor may be the recent speech in which Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political advisor, called for a campaign strategy built around defining sharp-edged contrasts with Democrats on domestic security, Iraq and taxes.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former chief of staff for the Republican National Committee, said the speech suggested a two-track election-year strategy for Bush and the GOP.

On foreign policy, Cole said, Bush continued to offer a sweeping vision and “sharp choices” reflecting Republican confidence “that national security is an issue ... we’ve won on in 2002 and 2004 and one we think we can win on in 2006.”

On domestic issues, Cole said, Bush shifted more toward “bite-sized and achievable legislative programs” likely to provide congressional Republicans tangible accomplishments they can take home to voters in November.

Marshall also saw a split-level strategy in the speech. “The long security section was intended to refurbish the core of his political strength, which is the projection of an image of decisive leadership,” he said. “But there was a lot in the rest of the speech

One senior GOP strategist familiar with White House planning agreed that in some respects the speech represented a mid-course correction for the president on domestic issues.

The absence of sweeping new proposals, said the strategist, who requested anonymity when discussing internal White House deliberations, acknowledged that after the failure of the Social Security plan, “people on [Capitol] Hill have sent the message that they are not interested in large-scale reforms this year.”

And the focus on concerns such as healthcare, the strategist continued, was a recognition “that sometimes the country has things on its mind -- and the smart thing is for a president to talk about what’s on the country’s mind.”

Bush linked his domestic and foreign ideas Tuesday by portraying them as a consistent effort to “shape,” rather than react to, change. But he did not offer a single overriding idea likely to rivet public attention or define the election year. For that reason, the specifics of Bush’s proposals may influence the campaign debate less than the sheer profusion of them.

Robert J. Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University, said Bush may be aiming less at amassing legislative achievements than at convincing voters “he cares about domestic issues and he’s not just focused on Iraq.” By offering so many domestic initiatives, Blendon said, Bush may also increase pressure on Democrats to clarify their own positions.

In 2005, Democrats blocked Bush’s Social Security plan without ever offering their own alternative. That could be more difficult this year because Democrats -- in a way they never did on Social Security -- agree the country faces genuine problems on issues such as energy and healthcare that Bush is now spotlighting.

Some of the positions Bush advanced Tuesday will place him on a collision course with Democrats. He was unflinching in his defense of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency and his demand that Congress quickly reauthorize the Patriot Act. Nor did he suggest any change of direction in his Iraq policy.

And by urging Congress to make his tax cuts permanent while also demanding further restraint on domestic spending, Bush guaranteed the sort of highly polarized debate that led every Democrat in Congress to vote against the GOP-backed budget late last year.

Among Bush’s new initiatives, his healthcare proposals seem likely to generate the most contention this year. The centerpiece of his plan is incentives for Americans to establish tax-free accounts to pay for more of their healthcare costs, while relying on high-deductible insurance policies for catastrophic expenses.

Supporters believe that approach will help hold down healthcare spending by making patients more careful about utilizing medical services. But most Democrats fear these accounts will dangerously shift financial risk to individuals and encourage the youngest and healthiest workers to opt out of the existing employer-based system, inflating premiums for older and sicker workers left behind.

“Health savings accounts are an ideological precept that don’t solve the problems, and yes, we are going to fight those,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).

But other elements of Bush’s agenda could garner Democratic support. While demanding tougher border security, the president reaffirmed his support for a guest worker program that places him closer to many Democrats than to Republican conservatives. His focus on competitiveness echoes concerns many Democrats have raised about sustaining prosperity in an era of global economic rivalry.

Debates on these issues probably will fill much of Congress’ time this year. But they may not shape the results of November’s election as much as whether Bush can persuade voters now sour on his performance to reconsider their views -- a challenge that may pivot less on the arguments and proposals he offered Tuesday than on the course of actual events in the economy, at the gas pump and, above all, in Iraq.