Bush’s Second Term Agenda

WaPo fronts a rather bizarre piece by Dan Balz, “President Is Still Mum on Agenda For Second Term.”

As he campaigned around the country last week, President Bush asked voters to give him another four years to make the nation “safer and stronger and better.” But with the election less than four months away, one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the president’s campaign is what he would actually do if he wins a second term. Bush’s failure to detail a second-term agenda — beyond his pledge to keep waging an aggressive war on terrorism — represents a stark contrast to his previous campaigns, in which he set out a handful of priorities almost from the opening day and rarely deviated from them.

Throughout the year, Bush has focused on Iraq and terrorism and on drawing attention to improved economic statistics, but has barely begun to make the case about second-term priorities. Whether there is room for a bold domestic agenda, given the fiscal strains his first term has created, and whether Bush has fresh ideas on issues such as health care, education and the economy are questions yet to be answered.

Bush is the sitting president of the United States. He’s in the middle of a war. He makes decisions and announces new policies on a constant basis. If he has any “fresh ideas,” he tries to enact them into policy. That’s what incumbents do. A president’s bid for a second term is almost inevitably a referendum on the first term. It therefore follows that Bush’s second term would be a continuation of the first. If one thinks that’s a good thing, one votes for Bush. If one thinks it’s a bad thing, one looks very carefully at voting for his opponent.

The only sense in which a second term is different, aside from reacting to day-to-day circumstances, is the changed political realities that follow an election in terms of the mix of the legislative branch–especially the party balance in the Senate–and the degree to which a margin of victory gives a renewed “mandate.”

But Bush advisers said even if they had tried to present a second-term agenda, news from Iraq would have overwhelmed it, and they point to the president’s job training initiatives, which have received little attention, as evidence. They also said the president has had to struggle to change public perceptions that the economic recovery has not reached down to help average Americans. “I think there’s a general feeling that we’re getting those things right,” one Bush adviser said. “But that’s a platform on which to build. We have to get those things right, and we have to go from there.”

The longer Bush has waited to lay out his agenda, the more that has triggered discussion among policy analysts about what Bush should propose. Will he attempt to run again as a compassionate conservative? Will he claim the mantle of reform by tackling such major issues as the tax code and health care? Or will he frame his agenda under the rubric of an ownership society, designed to appeal to younger voters, by pushing not only Social Security accounts but also other tax-based savings programs for health, education and retirement?

The broadest consensus among analysts is that the president will resurrect his call to alter Social Security by allowing individuals to create personal savings accounts with a portion of their payroll taxes. Early in his presidency, Bush appointed a commission that returned with a series of policy options. But the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and political fears among Republicans on Capitol Hill effectively dashed any chance for action.

Certainly. Plus, as I may have mentioned, there’s a war on. The priorities of a commander-in-chief tend to shift during wartime. Given that there is still going to be a war on on election day and, presumably, throughout the next presidential term, one suspects the political agenda will be shaped by that reality.

Bush advisers discount the idea that they have waited too long to unveil a second-term agenda. They note that President Bill Clinton did not unveil his theme of a “bridge to the 21st century” until his convention in 1996. But they say they recognize that victory depends on Bush’s ability to convince voters that he has an agenda superior to Kerry’s. “Incumbents who win always run prospectively rather than retrospectively,” said Matthew Dowd, senior adviser at Bush’s campaign committee. “There are things you have to deal with retrospectively, but in the end it’s going to be a prospective election.”

This is actually not true in any meaningful sense. Presidents who get re-elected do so on the basis of a successful first term and/or comparatively weak opponents. In my lifetime, the presidents elected to a second term have been Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton. All had strong economies and weak opponents. Reagan and Clinton ran on rather sunny platforms that amounted to “keep a good thing going.” Neither “Morning in America” nor the infamous “Bridge to the 21st Century” were substantive beyond that. I was six when Nixon ran for re-election and don’t know much about the campaign itself, other than the incredible divide between McGovern’s leftism and the sense of the country. But Nixon was hardly a sunny, prospective kind of guy.

Social security, education, and other domestic policy debates will have a negligible effect on the voters’ decision in November. Bush will win or lose almost entirely on the public’s perception of his performance as commander-in-chief, especially their evaluation of the Iraq War and the war on terrorism.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Media, Terrorism, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Chuck says:

    Oh Danny Boy! See GOP Home Page. It’s all there. Has been all along. Now go to Dems page: hasbeens all along. No agenda, never has been. Just hate. (PS: Dan, there’s a war on. Has been.) ? Are you getting this?

  2. Joseph Marshall says:

    “Plus, as I may have mentioned, there’s a war on. The priorities of a commander-in-chief tend to shift during wartime.”

    Okay. So where’s his proposal to revive the draft? His measures for rationing and strict wage/price controls? His plan to convert American industry to a wartime footing to become the Arsenal of Democracy? All good domestic proposals for a true wartime President, I should think.

    Then of course there is the matter of the CIA dierctor whose nomination the Adminstration is postponing. Undoubtedly because the President is too busy fighting terrorism to deal with a minor detail like that.

    And, of course, with his crucial 24/7 involvement in supressing Iraqi insurgents little things like the committment he kited out in support of a separate Palestinian state (presumably behind the new Israeli wall), or a resolution of the nuclear standoff with North Korea, or serious engagement with the potential second nuclear standoff with Iran, or the promise to do something about AIDS in Africa will just have to go on the back burner.

    Under those circumsatnces, old domestic agendas like the President’s proposed “jobs czar” can’t possibly be anywhere but in the back of the line.

    And, after all, last month’s job figures are looking up–they were over two-thirds of the number of first time job seekers entering the job market monthly (150,000 a month if I remember right).

    With the economy picking up steam like that, we’ll not only hire all those new people, we’ll rebuild those several million lost and outsourced jobs over the past four years in no time!

    So maybe domestic agendas could use a good dose of “benign neglect”. After all, it’s what got us this far!

    Summer’s coming along, and I think the President needs some more down time at the ranch.