Though the war on terrorism and democratizing and stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to occupy much of President George W. Bush's time, it's also clear he intends to make more time to deal with domestic issues in his second term, particularly those issues he campaigned on.
His end-of-year news conference last week gave the nation a sense of how he'd have governed in his first term if there'd been no 9-11. Spending the "political capital" he won in last month's re-election, he's going to take full advantage of his second chance.
Topping his agenda is the revamp of Social Security, the nation's most popular social program which by 2018, according to the program's trustees, will begin paying out more in benefits than it will be collecting in payroll taxes. He wants Congress to deal with the issue now, before it becomes a crisis.
The longer the wait, says the president, the more expensive it will be to fix later. He's right and he's also playing his cards close to his vest, refusing to divulge his plans for the rescue until Congress shows its hand. However, it's already known the key to his proposal calls for letting younger workers invest some of their Social Security savings in personal accounts.
When reporters asked him how he'd pay for the transition costs - the millions going into private accounts would have to be made up somewhere to continue paying current retirees - he said, "I'm not going to negotiate with myself," but that he wouldn't raise taxes.
Most political observers agree Bush's vision of rescuing the entitlement program won't be filled without recruiting some congressional Democrats to his side. Republicans have the votes to pass it on their own, but not the courage. The most likely Democrats to join them would have to be those up for re-election in 2006 from "red states" that President Bush won in a landslide.
Let's hope he succeeds, because Social Security is the easiest entitlement program to fix; once it's on the mend, it should smooth the way to deal with Medicare and Medicaid, which are in much deeper trouble than Social Security and more expensive to fix.
The president took a lot of criticism during the election campaign for running up record deficits after his predecessor left him with huge budget surpluses. Never mind the recession, the entirely unexpected costs of the war on terrorism, regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq, homeland security - and the hundreds of millions of dollars to help states dig out from under hurricane damages.
Bush's promise during the campaign to cut the deficit in half over the next five years was not taken seriously. But it will be when they see his 2006 budget blueprint, according to Treasury Secretary John Snow. It will call for cuts in real dollars - not rate of inflation dollars - in a host of "sacred cow" programs, including education, health research, space exploration, and even some in defense.
Finally, Bush says he wants to reform and simplify the tax code in his second term - perhaps in a way that will encourage savings and investment rather than spending and consumerism. In the best of all worlds, that would mean replacing the current behemoth, confusing tax code with a national sales tax; or, less desirable but still a huge improvement, a flat tax.
An ambitious agenda? You bet. If Bush can save Social Security, cut the deficit in half, give the nation a simpler, fairer tax code while winning the war on terrorism, his would be one of the most successful presidencies ever. How can one not hope he succeeds?
- The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle
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