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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2004

Next four years may be bumpy for Bush

WASHINGTON - Lately, everything seems to have gone George W. Bush's way. So why should he be nervous?

He probably isn't - the man has nerves of steel. But if past is prologue, his second term could be troubled. In modern history, most second terms have not been successful, as we've discussed several times. But barring unforeseen catastrophe - and if he maintains the political astuteness he has so far - Mr. Bush could well decide the fate of his last four years in office.

As the giant parade viewing stand goes up on Pennsylvania Avenue and bands around the nation practice for his second inauguration, what should be on his mind?

First of all, the economy should always be front and center. Jobs have not rebounded. The growth of the trade deficit, meaning we import increasingly more than we export, has become a serious worry. The budget deficit is nowhere near a decline.

As has become traditional, the President will host a two-day economic summit this week to scout out ideas from top business leaders. Too often this has been a dog-and-pony show. This time it should be serious business. Mr. Bush has decided to keep Treasury Secretary John Snow, at least for now. But if that signals a status-quo economy, it's a bad mistake.

If the business leaders are truthful, they should tell him the unvarnished truth about hard choices ahead. Tax cuts can't be made permanent without creating an even bigger deficit. Spending on such programs as the frivolous, unproven missile defense system must be stopped. The education of this country's children lags far behind that of children in countries that will soon be economic competitors, such as China. Any changes he wants to make in the tax code must be thought through extremely carefully.

And new spending temptations will emerge. Mr. Bush has already demanded a huge expenditure to fund the prescription-drug package for Medicare, but seniors are demanding more costly concessions. The country's infrastructure is falling apart.

Mr. Bush also must worry about how to wind down the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and deal with insurgencies in both places, involving nearly 150,000 Americans at a cost of billions of dollars. It took courage for the soldiers who confronted (and embarrassed) Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the other day about antiquated equipment, extended rotations, and lack of armor and improper maintenance on vehicles. They were right to do so; he asked for tough questions.

No parent who has lost a child in Iraq - and more than 1,000 lives have been lost there, while thousands of more soldiers have been wounded - can avoid being sickened at the thought of spending hundreds of millions on one plane while soldiers root through scrap heaps for makeshift armor to try to protect themselves from roadside bombs.

As Mr. Bush tries to remake the Middle East map into a patchwork of models of democracy, he will be buffeted by more questions over his foreign policy and more Islamic rage. That won't stop him, but the risks and challenges ahead are huge.

Mr. Bush has pledged to address the problem of what happens as the baby-boom generation retires, leaving Social Security benefits to be paid by two workers for every one retiree. So far he has offered up no concrete proposals, except to say that he favors partly privatizing Social Security to permit younger workers to save part of their FICA taxes, a highly perilous idea. He now is honor-bound to come up with solid solutions he can pay for without alarming senior citizens. But anything he does will cost hundreds of billions of dollars - and cause a huge uproar.

As the fight over the intelligence-reorganization bill showed, Mr. Bush is likely to have one conflict after another with members of his own party. There will be a blistering fight next year over the drive by some to make it impossible for illegal aliens to get driver's licenses and to tighten immigration rules even as Mr. Bush has pledged to let temporary workers into the country.

There will be another fight over his faith-based initiative - putting federal dollars behind religious groups that do charitable work. Other battles loom over his goal of barring some lawsuits and capping awards for medical malpractice. Mr. Bush will never be on the ballot again, but Republicans in Congress will and they have strong constituencies - fiscal conservatives, evangelicals, advocates for higher military spending.

As Mr. Bush continues to change his Cabinet, there will be inevitable questions about loyalty in the new team. As some Republicans muttered that Mr. Rumsfeld came close to insubordination in his early shots at intelligence overhaul, many are wondering how a lame-duck president will control those who wish to free-lance policy in a second term. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both ran into this problem in their second terms.

All this points to interesting times and bodes very well for journalists - lots to write about in the second Bush Administration. And that's enough to make any president anxious.



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