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Bush paints his policy goals as 'crises'

Reprising a tactic that served him well during his first term, President Bush is sounding the alarm  on three longtime conservative goals: Social Security reform, medical malpractice reform and confirmation of judicial nominees. The question is, are these pet issues or national crises?
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid, right, accuses the Bush administration of manufacturing "crises" to suit its own political ends.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid, right, accuses the Bush administration of manufacturing "crises" to suit its own political ends.Melina Mara / The Washington Post
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President Bush had great success in his first term by generating a sense of crisis that demanded decisive responses. Now, as he begins a second term, Bush is returning to the same tactic to accomplish three longtime conservative goals.

Warning of the need for urgent action on his Social Security plan, Bush says the "crisis is now" for a system even the most pessimistic observers say will take in more in taxes than it pays out in benefits well into the next decade.

He calls the proliferation of medical liability lawsuits a "crisis in America" that can be fixed only by limiting a patient's right to sue for large damages. And Bush has repeatedly accused Senate Democrats of creating a "vacancy crisis" on the federal bench by refusing to confirm a small percentage of his judicial nominees.

Real or manufactured crises?
This strategy helped Bush win support for the war in Iraq, tax cuts and education policies, as well as reclaim the White House. What is unclear is whether the same approach will work, given the battering to the administration's credibility over its Iraq claims and a new Democratic campaign accusing Bush of crying wolf.

"This White House had made an art of creating crisis where a crisis does not exist," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Painting a grim picture of problems is as old as politics itself. But Democrats and some presidential scholars say there is a danger for Bush if he appears to stoke fears for political gain. The Bush administration was criticized throughout the campaign — and before — for its repeated prewar warnings of Saddam Hussein's deadly weapons cache, which turned out to be based on faulty intelligence and proven largely untrue. Democrats contend Bush also exaggerated the nation's economic problems to justify tax cuts, terrorist threats to convince the public of the need for restrictions on civil liberties, and John F. Kerry's record to win a second term.

"One of the key problems of this form of rhetorical leadership" is discerning the difference "between a genuine and manufactured crisis," said Jeffrey K. Tulis, author "The Rhetorical Presidency" and a government professor at the University of Texas. "People do respond to crisis — if you think there is one, you tend to support the leader. The danger there is if it appears there is not one, you can have a credibility problem."

Doom and gloom with purpose
A crisis, of course, is often in the eye of the elected. Webster's Dictionary defines it as "an unstable situation of extreme danger or difficulty." To Bush, vacancies of the federal bench, high-dollar medical liability lawsuits and the strained Social Security system all fit the definition.

But there is a political strategy behind the rhetorical technique, too. The president is convinced lawmakers — and the public — are not inclined to tackle difficult issues unless "crisis is upon them."

In a Dec. 20 news conference, the president explained. "Many times, legislative bodies will not react unless the crisis is apparent, crisis is upon them," Bush said, discussing Social Security. "And so for a period of time, we're going to have to explain to members of Congress that crisis is here."

Four days earlier, he told participants at an economic conference how central this concept is to White House leadership. "A lot of government, if the truth be known, is crisis-oriented management," he said. "We wait and wait and wait, and then crisis is upon us and everybody demands a solution."

But are programs such as Social Security really in crisis? There is strong disagreement between Bush and Democrats. The president, for instance, has described the Social Security program in crisis in more than a dozen speeches, statements and news conferences since the Nov. 2 election. "You may not feel it, your constituents may not be overwhelming you with letters demanding a fix now, but the crisis is now," he said last month.

The crisis, as Bush explains, is this: A decade or so from now the Social Security system will begin paying out more in benefits than it takes in payroll taxes because there will be higher percentage of older Americans than there is today. From that point, the system, if unchanged, will create a $3.7 trillion shortfall by 2075, or $10.4 trillion if calculated over eternity, that future generations will be forced to pay for. The crisis, in effect, is not fixing the problem before it spreads out of control, according to Bush.

But Bush's chief solution — allowing younger workers to divert a portion of their 6.2 percent payroll tax into private investment accounts — will do nothing to avert it unless it is accompanied by a reduction in future guaranteed benefits or other changes to the retirement program, according to many experts on Social Security.

"It is a crisis created in the mind of the White House because they want to take care of the fat cats on Wall Street," Reid said. He argued that Social Security is primed to pay out full benefits until 2055 — even if no changes are made. Many Democrats propose small and gradual changes such as raising the payroll tax or reducing future benefits, perhaps just for the wealthy, to head off problems. Reid and most Democrats oppose private Social Security accounts.

Crisis refrain reprised
As for medical malpractice, Bush says greedy trial lawyers are driving up health care costs for consumers and driving good doctors out of business by filing frivolous lawsuits. "It's crisis because it affects lives and health care," said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman.

Bush used the word "crisis" four times Thursday in a campaign-style speech in Collinsville, Ill., where he blamed lawsuits for depriving Americans, especially those in rural areas, of quality physicians to deliver babies and save lives. "It is a societal issue that we must deal with," he said. "We don't want our little towns . . . not having any health care."

Both sides agree there is major health care problem in some states and localities where doctors are fleeing because of skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance costs. But there is widespread disagreement about how pervasive the problem is and who is to blame.

In 2002, the last year for which complete figures are available, malpractice costs amounted to less than 2 percent of health care costs, according to the Congressional Budget Office. "A reduction of 25 percent to 30 percent in malpractice costs would lower health care costs by only 0.4 percent to 0.5 percent, and the likely effect on health insurance premiums would be comparably small," according to the CBO study. Still, several areas are suffering from a shrinking number of doctors.

Reid said the insurance companies, which set the rates for physicians, are to blame, not the trial lawyers.

Finally, Bush accuses Democrats of creating a "vacancy crisis" on the courts by opposing his nominees. Republicans claim Democrats have abused the Senate filibuster by blocking 10 of the president's 229 judicial nominees in his first term — although confirmation of Bush nominees exceeds, in most cases, the first-term records of presidents going back to Ronald Reagan. "Does that sound like a crisis? Only if you failed math really badly," Reid said.