U.S. President George W. Bush is beginning his second term of office (Thursday, Washington time). Having outlined an aggressive agenda for the next four years, he has said he intends to use the political capital accumulated during his first term to accomplish his objectives. That will require spending every penny so acquired in some cases. Other, perhaps more important, objectives will not require use of this capital as much as compromise.
The most urgent tasks in the second Bush administration are to bridge the bitter divides in American politics and to restore U.S. authority and leadership in the world.
Mr. Bush has made no attempt to hide his ambitions. On several occasions, he has said he intends to reshape U.S. domestic politics and policy in his second term. Topping his agenda are tort reform, aggressive tax reform (making permanent earlier tax cuts) and partial privatization of the government-mandated pension system (Social Security) with personal accounts.
While all three are dear to Mr. Bush’s heart — and gratify many of his biggest backers — they also serve Bush strategist Karl Rove’s aim of creating a permanent Republican majority in the United States. The first and third objectives undercut the biggest sources of support for the Democratic Party: lawyers and pensioners. Tax and pension reform are designed to encourage taxpayers to save and invest more, effectively turning them into “stakeholders” more interested in the returns on capital than on labor. That, too, goes to the heart of a key Democrat constituency: labor unions.
These policies are controversial enough on their merits; partisan objectives will ensure that Democrats raise a spirited resistance to them. Yet the last thing the U.S. needs is deeper political divisions. Mr. Bush promised four years ago to bring his nation together, but after his first term, the country is sharply polarized. And he has shown little inclination to reach out.
As he explained in a recent interview, the U.S. “had an accountability moment — that’s called the 2004 elections.” He won and that is all the mandate he needs. Such imperiousness — it is hard to think of a better word — bodes ill for reconciliation in U.S. domestic politics.
Iraq contributes greatly to the rancor in the U.S. Many Americans, like many other publics around the world, still feel as though the Bush administration was not honest about its rationale for the war. Yet Mr. Bush, and his nominee for secretary of state, Ms. Condoleezza Rice, insist that the war was justified, that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power and that they have no regrets. They continue to see the fight against terror and the struggle to extend democracy around the world as their primary objectives.
In her confirmation hearings earlier this week, Ms. Rice said the U.S. “stands with the oppressed people on every continent” and identified six “outposts of tyranny”: Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea, Iran, Belarus and Zimbabwe. Ominously, she warned that “we cannot rest until every person living in a fear society has finally won their freedom.”
Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice have recognized that the U.S. cannot accomplish those objectives on its own. Mr. Bush has said he will reach out to allies, and will be traveling to Europe next month to do just that. At her hearings, Ms. Rice said the first task of the U.S. is to unite the community of democracies, and she promised to strengthen U.S. alliances around the world. Noting that “no nation can build a safer, better world alone,” Ms. Rice explained that “the time for diplomacy is now.”
It is still unclear how far that diplomacy will go. In his campaign, Mr. Bush reminded U.S. voters that, while they might not agree with his positions, at least they know where he stands. His penchant for speaking plainly and framing sharp choices — as when he told the world after 9/11 that “you are either with us or against us” — implies that the president does not put much stock in the give-and-take of conventional diplomacy.
That must change. Mr. Bush’s greatest asset — and that of the nation he leads — is moral authority. The Iraq war has badly damaged his credibility and undermined his ability to lead. The U.S. cannot command support; indeed, it never could. Rather, it demonstrated the power of its ideals and, through that process, earned the right to lead.
Mr. Bush must work with renewed vigor to win the support of allies, friends and other nations that share his goals. These goals are worthy of support, but coalitions must be built. They cannot be assumed into existence. Winning back the confidence of the world is Mr. Bush’s primary task in his second term.
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