Inside the numbers: Second terms

Posted: Feb 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Talk in recent days from his fellow Republicans and other fellow Americans would lead us to believe that most have a dim outlook of President Bush's political prospects in his second term. Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security has taken a particular public relations beating, even among some of the GOP hardcore.
But the polling numbers tell a different story on the public's view of their re-elected leader. As part of our recent InsiderAdvantage "Super Poll" of the nation, we asked:

 Do you think that George W. Bush will have a more successful second term than his first?

Yes   53 percent
No   40 percent
Undecided   7 percent

 The survey was conducted Feb. 2-3 among 600 Americans. It has a margin of error of plus or minus four percent.

 Modern history supports the view that U.S. presidents face tougher going in their second terms. But those unhappy days in the White House have often been the result of presidential blunders that went far beyond business as usual. Richard Nixon for one, and enough said already. Ditto for Bill Clinton. Only Lyndon Johnson -- whose first term was an abbreviated one that followed John Kennedy's death -- and Ronald Reagan provide helpful examples for Bush to copy.

 So here is a sampling of "compare and contrast" with those former administrations, as President Bush embarks on his second four years in office.

 Domestically, both Johnson and Reagan made critical missteps, with Reagan's having a more immediate impact. His administration's rewrite of the tax code punished the real estate industry so badly that it nearly ground to a halt by the early 1990s.

 Johnson expanded entitlement programs as far as the eye could see. He set the stage for the entire debate over debt, Social Security, Medicare benefits, and all of the other budget-busting issues with which the current president must contend today.

 Both Johnson and Reagan had troublesome issues that plagued their second administrations like incurable diseases. And their problems are instructive to the current administration.

 For Johnson, it was the Vietnam War. It ultimately destroyed his popularity and political standing. But the inevitable comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq -- so rampant in contemporary media -- are not as accurate as many believe. In Vietnam, the war raged on with no semblance of a plan for withdrawal, concurrent with ever-dwindling support from the native people. In Iraq, the recent elections indicate a willingness on the part of most Iraqis to accept the imposed reform. That makes for at least a realistic hope for a successful exit, the continuing bloody opposition from insurgents notwithstanding. While nothing is certain, it looks now as if Iraq won't deteriorate into "Bush's Vietnam."

 Reagan's executive bugaboo was his delegation of power -- or the assumption of it by certain key players. The Iran-Contra controversy was the result of too many subordinates trying to play president, albeit in a theoretically noble effort to free American hostages in Lebanon. Most of the media never truly understood the public's abiding lack of interest in this complicated "scandal." Many ordinary Joes and Jills saw little morally wrong with trading arms for hostages. After all, just a few years previous, most Americans would have been for just about anything shy of massive bloodletting to get American hostages out of Iran.

 Odd that this glance at modern American history should end with a mention of Iran, because that's the same place that George W. Bush could potentially founder in his second term.

 Could a foreign-affairs catastrophe be in the offing? Something that would make Iraq nothing more than an eventual afterthought in future history books? The winners of Iraq's recent election elevated to power some who have ties to extremists in Iran. Bush's immense challenge is to allow Iraq to be led by whomever its people choose, while also ensuring that these new leaders don't make an unholy and potentially destructive alliance with the more formidable member of the "Axis of Evil" just to the east in Iran.

 Domestically, Bush's Social Security semi-privatization effort has some of the markings of the Reagan tax code revisions that failed. Like that earlier reform, Bush's legislation is well-intentioned, but has questionable and perhaps immediately negative political effects. Even GOP leaders in the Senate were quoted last weekend as saying the bill might require what would in essence be a tax hike for those paying into the system. That's hardly good news about the president's main domestic reform initiative.

 Ultimately, it will be up to the president and his team to impose order here and abroad. If they can effect a legitimate transfer of power in Iraq, and without the new government joining forces with Iran, they will have accomplished more there than many thought was possible. And if the Bush team can establish a workable system by which Americans can control their own retirement funds -- and do so without creating a hidden tax -- then once again victory could be snatched from the jaws of defeat.

 Second terms can be tricky. Even when the public is optimistic about their outcome.