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Bush faces many challenges in second term
Updated: 2005-01-16 09:32

The list of major challenges confronting President Bush as he prepares to take the oath of office for the second time is exhausting.

Iraqi elections at month's end. The broad fight against terrorism. A daring overhaul of Social Security. Just to name a few.

"I'm rested and ready to continue to be your president," Bush likes to tell audiences.

Are his goals too ambitious?

Even some Republicans wonder, given that the president, whose inauguration is Thursday, has just a year or so before he effectively becomes a lame duck. By Bush's own account, he has 18 months to move his agenda through Congress.

And that does not take into account unexpected crises. Or the firestorm that will consume time and political capital should the opportunity arise for Bush to fill any vacancies on the Supreme Court.

Bush's plans could "encounter a fairly substantial wall of opposition — both from the Democrats and from the circumstances he faces when he takes his hand off the Bible," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.

"It's questionable whether the January 30 election in Iraq will change much for the better," Baker said. "There's uneasiness among Republicans over the size of the deficit. And the president's effort to restructure Social Security is very risky."

In the short term, Bush must prepare his inaugural and State of the Union speeches, name someone to the powerful new position of national intelligence director, and submit his 2006 budget to Congress. The spending plan is expected to cut or freeze the amount of money available for dozens of federal programs.

Bush must keep close watch on Iraq's elections and on efforts toward resuming the Israeli-Palestinian peace process after last week's Palestinian elections.

In February, the president makes the first overseas trip of his second term. In Europe, he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and try to mend relations — still frayed over the Iraq war — with European allies.

Bush has said his second-term priorities are "to win the war on terror and do everything we can to protect our homeland" and then "continue to work to spread democracy."

Domestically, he has suggested that his No. 1 goal is overhauling Social Security.

But his idea to set up voluntary private investment accounts for younger workers in exchange for reducing guaranteed benefits in the future is drawing strong opposition. Lining up against it are Democrats and the AARP, which represents 35 million older people, as well as Republicans who support private accounts but oppose benefit cuts.

Bush can win congressional approval only "if he doesn't try and cut benefits," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said in an interview. "The system can't handle cutting benefits and doing the accounts, politically," said Gingrich, who is on a new book tour and exploring a bid for the 2008 presidential nomination.

The Social Security fight could be the biggest involving a domestic program since the 1993-94 battle over the Clinton administration's failed health care plan.

If Social Security isn't enough of a challenge, Bush also has proposed rewriting income tax laws; limiting medical malpractice and class-action jury awards; allowing oil exploration in Alaska wildlife areas; and a "guest worker" immigration plan that conservatives in his own party oppose.

Bush pledges "to work to cut our deficit in half over the next five years," yet in four years as president has not vetoed a single bill. He promises to send Congress a "tough budget" to put the government on a deficit-reduction path.

"I think he's going to have serious problems within his own party when it comes to budget issues," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst specializing in Congress at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

"He's coming back with larger Republican margins in both houses, and I think we're going to see some vetoes. I also believe he's not going to be able to accomplish most of his domestic goals without greater bipartisan support," Ornstein said.

The partisan divide in Congress is wide. Consider how Senate Democrats hounded Bush's nominee for attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, over his role as White House counsel in developing terror-interrogation policies. Also, some Democrats delayed Congress' formal electoral vote for Bush's second-term victory to protest voting irregularities in Ohio.

On foreign affairs, skeptics abound abroad when it comes to U.S. policy on Iraq and elsewhere. Bush must deal, too, with the nuclear aspirations of Iran and North Korea. Russian President Vladimir Putin is consolidating power and moving Moscow away from democratic reforms, presenting a new challenge for Bush.

The U.S. economic outlook is more upbeat. Yes, the continuing slide in the dollar or a new surge in oil prices could drive up interest rates and inflation. For now, however, both seem subdued.

The unemployment rate is down almost a percentage point over the past 18 months. Both government and private forecasters expect the economic recovery to continue.

The millions of job losses during the early part of Bush's presidency have all but evaporated. The Labor Department said 2.2 million new jobs were created in 2004, bringing to just 122,000 the net loss of jobs so far in Bush's first term.

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