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Fred Barnes: Bush Can Beat the Curse of the 2nd Term Blues

Fred Barnes, in the Weekly Standard (Nov. 15, 2004):

WHY DO PRESIDENTS stumble in their second terms? Four reasons. They try to govern without a real agenda, having exhausted their policy initiatives in the first term. Their wisest and most competent aides and advisers leave and are replaced by less talented people. They suffer from bad relations with Congress as a result of past scuffles and disagreements. Or they are brought down by a scandal.

President Bush need not suffer from any of these in his second term. He has an agenda, a combination of leftover issues--such as making his tax cuts permanent--and the reformed entitlements of his new "ownership society." If he acts quickly, Bush can cajole his best advisers into staying another year or two. He can smooth relations with Congress by strategizing with Republican leaders, while also warming to a few Democrats. And he can pray for no scandal.

A president without an agenda is at the mercy of his opponents. Think of Bill Clinton in 1997. His main goal was fending off House speaker Newt Gingrich. So he made a deal to cut taxes and move toward a balanced budget. That amounted to accepting Republican policies, not pursuing his own. He was politically neutered. Then he got caught up in the Monica scandal and you know the rest.

In contrast, the Bush agenda is bulging. His unfinished business consists of tax cuts, an energy bill to increase oil and gas production, tort reform, faith-based programs, and filling judgeships with conservatives. All of these were thwarted in the Senate by
Democratic leader Tom Daschle, whose defeat may have a chastening effect on Democrats. "That has to send a message to the party," says Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman. "That kind of intractable opposition doesn't work."

Maybe the message will take. In any event, Bush will need Democratic allies to bring about individual investment accounts in Social Security, to introduce free market forces into our health care system, and to create incentives to saving. The White House has Democratic senators in mind: Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, the four senators from North Dakota and Arkansas. Bush hopes to make tactical alliances with one or more of them without abandoning his principles. "No one's saying it's easy," an aide comments. "It's hard." That's putting it mildly.

Then there's the national security agenda: Iraq and the war on terrorism and the campaign to spread democracy. That should keep the president focused. The Iraq election in January and the need to clean out Falluja will require enormous attention. So will Iran and North Korea. Likewise, efforts to improve relations with European countries, perhaps the only thing John Kerry convinced the nation that Bush must do to further American foreign policy. And all this touches on the matter of keeping good people. In national security, the indispensable person is not Secretary of State Colin Powell or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld but Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser. To keep Rice, Bush might have to elevate her to secretary of state. He'd be smart to do it.

The performance of White House staffs and cabinet departments often deteriorates in second terms. This doesn't have to happen, especially if Karl Rove remains as senior adviser and political director. Rove is one of those rare individuals as adept at substance as at politics. He has brought coherence to Bush initiatives, seeing to it that they make both policy and political sense. Besides, others at the Bush White House are afraid of crossing him, which is good. It cuts down on freelancing.

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