President Bush, bruised by months of setbacks, enters the new year hoping to win congressional battles over tax cuts and immigration, get rebellious Republicans back in step and nurture a new democracy in Iraq — the make-or-break issue of his legacy.
Expect the president to bring in 2006 the same way he ended the old: Trumpeting good economic news and talking, reassuringly, about Iraq where excitement over a historic ballot has been tempered by growing disenchantment with the war and a death toll of U.S. troops that tops 2,160.
The war in Iraq and sluggish diplomatic efforts to deter the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea will continue to dominate foreign policy for the president, who plans a trip early in the new year to India.
At home, Bush will be after the Senate to confirm Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court in January. He also wants immigration reform, including a guest worker program.
Absent from his to-do list is a plan to overhaul the tax code. White House advisers say there may be some efforts to simplify it, but a sweeping restructuring would need more discussion. Also off the list is revamping Social Security, the one-time centerpiece of Bush’s domestic agenda that failed to gain traction even though he crisscrossed the country to win support for it.
White House advisers were candid that next fall’s congressional elections will cramp Bush’s legislative efforts.
“When the president puts out a legislative and executive agenda, we’ll make sure we reflect the fact that it’s difficult for Congress to get anything done in an election year,” said Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president.
Bartlett said that doesn’t mean the president won’t introduce fresh initiatives, which typically are tucked in the State of the Union address, tentatively scheduled this year for Jan. 31. But midterm elections often mark the last lap of a president’s domestic agenda as lawmakers turn their attention to re-election campaigns, and presidents in their sixth year move toward the end of their Oval Office stay. Already, 2008 presidential hopefuls are positioning themselves on Iraq.
“I think he’s going to fall back on what he didn’t want to do, what he swore he wouldn’t do, but almost all second-term presidents do, which is being in a kind of caretaker status,” said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute.
Right after he was re-elected with just a 3.5 million-vote margin in the popular vote, Bush proudly claimed a mandate to pursue an aggressive agenda. “I earned capital in the campaign — political capital — and now I intend to spend it. It is my style,” he said.
Among successes the White House claims in 2005: A bankruptcy law that made it harder for Americans to wipe out their debts, legislation to discourage multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuits and confirmation of John Roberts as chief justice of the United States. Bush also won a free trade pact with six Latin American countries. There was a highway bill, at last, to modernize the transportation network. He also got major energy legislation — the first such national plan in more than a decade — although the act does little in the near-term to ease gas prices, which topped $3 a gallon after the hurricane.
Debate on Iraq
The list of setbacks is longer.
Bartlett said Bush’s biggest disappointments of the year were the withdrawal of Harriet Miers, his second pick for the Supreme Court, and the impotent federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which tainted his leadership profile and exposed the nation’s vulnerability in disaster scenarios.
“The accusations of racism and things like that is something that touched a chord with him,” Bartlett said. “It wasn’t one of the finest moments for our government.”
Meanwhile, the Iraq debate took on new potency at home.
Despite expected troops reductions this spring, the war will continue to cost the U.S. billions. Congressional defense appropriators expect the next war package that Bush requests will be between $80 billion and $100 billion. That’s on top of $50 billion Congress just approved to support actions in Afghanistan and Iraq through Memorial Day.
As the year ended, the administration lost its bid to open oil drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge. Congress extended the Patriot Act for just a month. The European Union was vowing to probe allegations the U.S. has been holding suspected terrorists in secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe. And the White House was forced to accept Sen. John McCain’s demand for tighter restrictions on the treatment of foreign detainees,
“It’s been the least successful year of his presidency,” said Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne, suggesting that to turn things around, Bush should reach out to Democrats.