History suggests that most second-term presidents muddle through their last four years. George W. Bush, however, should not be expected to be such a lame-duck leader. As he himself has told us, “the president has got to set big agenda items and solve big problems.” Indeed, he is pursuing a transformative agenda for the country, one that will finally implement then-president Bill Clinton’s prescient 1996 insight “that the era of big government is over.”
The continuing crisis in Iraq notwithstanding, the second Bush administration has made it clear that it will “spend its capital” on significant domestic initiatives. While we can expect movement on important issues such as overhauling the tax code, immigration reform and the curbing of excess litigation, the president’s agenda, I believe, will focus on three themes: creating an ownership society, fostering a compassionate society and reinforcing America as a responsibility society.
The premise of an ownership society is quite straightforward: giving Americans greater control and responsibility over the structures essential to their lives. In its first term, this administration made considerable progress toward this goal. The percentage of Americans owning their own homes trended upward every year from the beginning of 2001 to 69.5% in the third quarter of 2004. And the president plans a variety of programs to increase the number of minority homeowners another 5.5 million by 2010.
The president’s ownership society also aims at securing Americans’ retirement by offering young workers the opportunity to place part of their retirement money in private pension arrangements similar to the Thrift Savings Plan now available to federal employees. The pension plans will provide American workers with a pre-funded retirement nest egg they can use or bequeath to their families. In the president’s words, these reforms will allow every citizen to be, in some small measure, “an agent of his own destiny.”
Other efforts to engender an ownership society include encouraging consumer-driven health care and private competition to give patients and doctors more control over health care decisions. As but one example, note the president’s proposals for refundable tax credits to help low-income Americans buy health insurance.
Bush is also hard at work fostering a compassionate society. The president reached out to his two predecessors, former foe Bill Clinton and his own father, to spearhead the relief effort for victims of the recent tsunami disaster in South Asia. Moreover, the administration is planning to expand its efforts in hunger disaster relief, and the exciting Millennium Challenge Account will aid the long-term development of those countries that are working on democratization and market reforms.
Wherever possible, the administration wants to promote this American generosity by assisting volunteer efforts and public-private partnerships. As but one example, the administration has proposed more than $300 million for a prisoner re-entry initiative to provide mentors for disadvantaged youth, including the children of prisoners.
This effort is also the underlying basis of the faith-based initiative begun during the last administration. Already more than 100 Jewish social-service and faith-based agencies have received federal grants to support their work. Further efforts will be made to institutionalize these public-private partnerships. And the president continues to urge final action by Congress of the CARE Act, which creates tax incentives for individual and corporate charitable giving.
The goal of personal responsibility is one that stands behind much of the president’s second-term agenda — whether it is efforts to facilitate job training, or to create choices in Medicare and education. Thus, welfare reform will continue with the goal of maximizing self-sufficiency through ending welfare dependency wherever possible. Likewise, further development of the No Child Left Behind Act will include expanded testing and accountability of schools.
This administration’s policies will strive for promoting responsibility in personal conduct as well. Efforts have been and will continue to be made to promote abstinence among teenagers — and contrary to what the cynics say, the numbers show considerable success. Bush has also asked for funds to promote responsible fatherhood — and again, the numbers show that the proportion of children in married families, after two decades, is slowly trending upward. And wherever possible, the Bush administration will seek to strengthen the institution of marriage.
Many Jewish organizations have charged that a second-term Bush administration will tear down the safety net for needy Americans. This kind of instinctive partisanship is belied by even a brief glance at the administration’s position papers over the last few months. These are replete with targeted proposals to assist the poor and middle class through creative and innovative mechanisms. At times these approaches will go beyond those used by entrenched social-service bureaucracies, but critics of the president would do well to remember that mistrust of bureaucracy does not reflect a lack of compassion.
Clearly an agenda this bold will require significant give and take with Congress. And no doubt there will be “teething” problems and course corrections as the policy details emerge. And, of course, the ongoing war on terrorism or fiscal necessities might ultimately derail some or much of the president’s ambitious agenda.
Nonetheless, the broad strokes are becoming apparent, and they suggest that, rather than grinding to a lame-duck halt, the next four years will prove to be a heady ride as Bush moves to strike down ossified social-service delivery systems and empower ordinary citizens. Historians might well reflect that his second term was one that recalibrated the relation between the citizen and the state in a Republican New Deal.
Marshall Breger, a law professor at The Catholic University of America, served as a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.