Kinder, gentler Bush seems unlikely

Posted: Tuesday, November 09, 2004

WASHINGTON Odd things can happen when presidents no longer have to worry about re-election. George W. Bush embarks on another four years in the White House unleashed from election concerns for the first time in his presidency, raising questions about what he will do with the freedom of a second term.

Past presidents have often reached big in their second term, with some accomplishments that build on earlier ones and others that can appear to contradict them. Regardless, with their eyes trained away from the voting booth and toward the history books, many have taken the chance to gamble.

Possibilities for a second-term Bush exist in part because of circumstances, and in part because of the agenda he has already set.

Either way, there's no disputing at least two things: He'll have lots of extra time now that he no longer has to devote time to raising money and campaigning for re-election. It also won't be long before attention will turn to the 2008 presidential contest and he'll be considered a lame duck.

White House political adviser Karl Rove said Bush in his second term ''absolutely'' would push for a constitutional amendment that says marriage consists only of the union of a man and a woman.

Bush believes states can deal with the issue of civil unions between gay people, an arrangement that if enacted would grant same-sex partners most or all the rights available to married couples, Rove said Sunday.

In foreign policy, one obvious opportunity is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Bush's second term collides with changes in the region. Israel has taken steps to withdraw from Gaza after nearly 40 years of occupation.

With Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hospitalized and gravely ill, the man seen by Washington as an untrustworthy peace partner may be sidelined.

Those developments could give Bush a chance to risk trying to make peace, and White House aides have already begun signaling they see an opening.

Observers also see a legacy-building opportunity in Bush's proposal to increase Social Security's long-term solvency by partially privatizing it. ''He could really make his mark there,'' said Lee Edwards, an analyst of presidential decision-making at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

But to be successful on both those difficult fronts, Bush might have to curb the my-way-or-the-highway approach that has dominated his relations with Democrats in Congress and international allies, two groups whose help he will likely need.

However, experts noted there's been little indication from Bush that he plans to be anything other than the mostly unbending conservative of his first term. Since Election Day, he has promised to earn the trust of Democrats and talked of bipartisanship. But so far, that has mostly meant inviting Democrats to support his proposals and leaving them behind if they decline.

And in recent days, Bush has appeared, if anything, more emboldened than ever, political experts and presidential historians said. When asked to name his most immediate priorities, he raised an issue that is one of the most divisive flashpoints between the two parties capping medical malpractice lawsuit awards.

''He talks the talk of conciliation, but he walks the walk of the solid conservative,'' said Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. ''I see no sign the president is going to modify his approach.''

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