Bush focuses on ‘unfinished business’

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

President Bush’s State of the Union address on Monday was a reflection of the state of his presidency at the beginning of its final year: a short-term scramble for a long-term legacy.

A president who entered office in 2001 with promises to reform Social Security, immigration and education policy now sees time running out on most of those goals. A president who prided himself on a long stretch of economic growth -- fueled, he said, by his tax cuts -- is now grappling with a sudden downturn that could cancel the earlier gains.

The most upbeat, soaring section of Bush’s speech, ironically, was his description of progress in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- accomplishments whose durability remain in question, and for which few Americans seem to grant the president much credit.

“He’s playing out his last year from a difficult position,” said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was chief of staff during President Reagan’s final year in office. “He has an economy that seems to be going downward, at least in the perception of the American people. He has an Iraq where people seem to say, ‘The surge is working; so what?’ And he has a popularity rating in the low 30s, which doesn’t give you any margin for victory.”

When Reagan, the last two-term Republican president, began his final year, he had the benefit of a rebounding economy and a foreign policy that was bearing fruit in an improved relationship with the Soviet Union, Duberstein said.

“The hand Bush has been dealt -- self-dealt, in part -- is not anywhere near as strong,” he said.

On foreign policy, a traditional focus for late-term presidents because they often find foreign adversaries less frustrating than Congress, Bush delivered a forceful but familiar restatement of his ambitious goals. In Iraq, he said, “Reconciliation is taking place, and the Iraqi people are taking control of their future.”

And he renewed his vow to seek a peace agreement between Israel and a newborn Palestinian state by the end of the year.

But in domestic affairs, the president implicitly acknowledged that his main goal in his final year was to complete “unfinished business” from the first seven, not to blaze new trails. Unfinished initiatives outnumbered new ideas in the speech roughly 3 to 1, and the scale of the new proposals was notably modest.

They included a proposal for up to $300 million to help low-income parents send their children to private, parochial or out-of-district public schools; new funding to promote research in adult skin cells to avoid the ethical issues raised by embryonic cells; and giving spouses of military personnel a leg up in federal hiring.

On Social Security and Medicare, the big-ticket programs that Bush and most politicians of both parties consider the biggest fiscal problem facing the federal government, the president essentially announced that he was giving up.

“Now I ask members of Congress to offer your proposals and come up with a bipartisan solution,” he said.

Bush’s proposal for changing the Social Security retirement system ran aground in a Republican-led Congress in 2005; his less-ambitious proposals for changes in Medicare went nowhere in a Democratic-led Congress last year.

White House counselor Ed Gillespie acknowledged that in the middle of a hotly contested election year the Democratic Congress was less likely than ever to follow Bush’s suggestions on most issues. “That’s where we are in the cycle of things,” he said mildly. “It’s an election year and there’s a Congress controlled by the other party.

“We understand that Social Security reform and immigration reform are not likely to be done. But we think that these very important, very significant pieces of legislation [on other domestic issues] can get done, and that we have a window of opportunity to do it.”

Bush put more emphasis Monday on his immediate priority, the economic stimulus package of $150 billion in tax rebates and incentives for business investment that he worked out with leaders of the House of Representatives last week.

The president asked the Senate not to “load up the bill” with additions such as an extension of unemployment insurance, which many Democrats favor. “That would delay it or derail it,” he warned.

But even the stimulus package reflected Bush’s constrained circumstances.

When he gave his first speech to a joint session of Congress in 2001, the economy also was teetering on the edge of a recession after the bursting of a financial bubble -- in that case, a high-technology bubble, unlike this year’s mortgage finance crisis.

In 2001, the federal budget was in surplus, and Bush won a large, long-lasting tax cut. This time, the budget is in deficit, and he is likely to win only modest, temporary tax cuts, despite his calls to make his earlier, larger cuts permanent.

Asked what Bush could do to maximize his chances of a successful final year, Duberstein, who helped Reagan finish his presidency on a high note, had a ready prescription.

“Govern well and reach bipartisan accord on important pieces of legislation -- not just the economic stimulus but No Child Left Behind [the renewal of his education program], the trade bills -- and without the constant threat of veto and confrontation,” he said.

“It’s almost how he does it rather than what he does,” Duberstein said. “If he’s gotten a pop of a few points [in popularity] from the stimulus package, it’s because people see him and [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi walking into the room together.”

On that count, Duberstein warned, Bush may have hit a discordant note by announcing that he plans to veto any appropriations bill that does not radically reduce the number of “earmarks,” or designations for spending on individual projects in congressional districts.

Democrats reacted angrily to the proposal, noting that Bush had not acted against earmarks during his first six years in office, when Republicans passed tens of thousands of the special spending measures into law.

With luck, Duberstein and others said, Bush has a chance to finish out his term in better standing with the public than he now holds -- if the economy recovers quickly from its current downdraft, and if he can make good on his promises of bipartisan deals with Democrats.

But in the long run, they noted, his legacy will depend primarily on the long-term results of the wars he directed, and there the outcome hangs on factors beyond the president’s control.

“What is any president in the last 11 months of his term going to say? It’s not going to be possible for him to look forward to any extraordinary achievement in the coming months,” presidential historian Robert Dallek said.

“Bush likes to say, ‘Well, it will be like Harry Truman’; down the road, people will see that he was right,” Dallek said, noting that Truman left office in 1953 with his public standing low, the nation mired in an unpopular war in Korea.

“Truman got credit [later] for having engineered the policy that won the Cold War,” Dallek said. “What is Bush putting in place as a long-term policy to combat the jihadists? It’s not yet clear that he has succeeded in doing that. . . . Politicians often say, ‘History will judge.’ Well, it does.”

Times staff writer Peter G. Gosselin contributed to this report.