President Bush is ready to challenge Congress to approve a stack of politically divisive measures he has proposed before without success, from major changes in Social Security to a loosening of the nation’s immigration laws.
Bush will go before Congress and the nation with his annual State of the Union message Wednesday night with the lowest approval rating of any second-term president since Richard Nixon. Yet he is in a feisty mood, insisting that his re-election has given him a mandate for change and political capital to spend in pursuing his agenda.
Even though Republicans control both houses of Congress, Bush’s proposals face major obstacles. Democrats are deeply suspicious of the president, feeling he has ignored them and refused to compromise.
Republicans are wary about Bush’s ambitious Social Security plan because of the political risks of tampering with one of the government’s most popular programs. Facing re-election next year as Bush moves toward lame duck status, GOP lawmakers can’t be counted on for rock-solid unity.
The poisonous relationship between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill also complicates Bush’s task.
“We have the most polarized Congress maybe since the 1930s,” said Terry Madonna, a professor and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “I don’t think there’s any way Democrats are going to roll over on these issues that they feel very strongly about. Bipartisanship is virtually obsolete in Congress.”
Another problem that could weaken Bush’s hand is Iraq. If the situation there deteriorates, it could sap the president’s political strength.
Bush will use the State of the Union address to update the nation on Iraq after Sunday’s successful elections, discussing the way forward, aides said.
He will also appeal to other nations to “seize on this opportunity to find ways to show tangible public support” for Iraqis and their government, said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to upstage the president.
First lady Laura Bush, meanwhile, said Tuesday that among those sitting with her in the House gallery as special guests during her husband’s speech will be two voters, one from Iraq and another from Afghanistan, who had participated in those countries’ elections.
She told NBC’s “Today” show they would serve as “a sign that people the world over want to live in freedom and want to have a democracy in their country.”
The key ingredients of Bush’s domestic package — Social Security, an energy bill, limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, immigration — are repackaged from years past.
“These are oldies, golden oldies,” said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Much of what is on the agenda in domestic policy are things that made it around the track in the first four years but didn’t get to the finish line.
“Deciding that you want to go for a big hit like Social Security is a change, although we’re getting mixed signals in terms of how much he really is going to push for this and how bold it will be,” Ornstein said. “I think an expectation that we’re going to get a burst of legislative activity would be a misguided expectation.”
Social Security restructuring, Bush’s top proposal, has been around since before he entered the White House. In 2000 he campaigned on the idea of allowing younger workers to divert some of their Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts, a move that might offer higher returns but also would deplete money for promised benefits in the future.
Bush raised the idea in his first address to a joint session of Congress and has renewed it in every State of the Union since. But he never put any political muscle behind it, and Congress ignored it. The president says this time will be different, that it will be his No. 1 priority and that he will provide political cover for Republicans willing to stick their necks out.
Democrats, though, are equally determined to block the president’s initiative, which calls for partially privatizing Social Security by adding individual investment accounts to the government’s nearly 70-year-old retirement system.
“We can solve this long-term challenge without dismantling Social Security and without allowing this administration’s false declaration of a crisis to justify a privatization plan that is unnecessary,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Monday.
The president will “talk in certainly greater detail” on Wednesday than he has in the past about his plan to restructure Social Security, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
But it was not clear whether Bush would go far enough — either in the speech or in the actual plan, expected in late February or March — to satisfy some skittish congressional Republicans who have urged Bush to produce a detailed plan and try to sell it to the nation before attempting to push it through Congress.
“I think you can expect that a good portion of his State of the Union address will talk about the need to save and strengthen Social Security for our children and grandchildren,” McClellan said. “This is about fixing a problem that faces younger Americans and future generations. And we need to act on this opportunity that’s before us, because it only gets worse over time.”
McClellan said Bush would also talk about the U.S. economy. “The policies that the president has advocated and implemented are working to get our economy growing stronger. And we must continue to build upon those policies,” McClellan said.