WASHINGTON – On the campaign trail, belting out promises for the next four years, President Bush (search) exudes confidence and optimism. Yet the reality of a second term is that Bush would be boxed in by many of the momentous decisions he made in the first.
The United States led the invasion of Iraq, so Bush now faces the task of finding a way out of the war — and living up to his promise to leave the nation as a model democracy in the Arab world.
He's restrained by two realities. The reluctance of U.S. allies to send more soldiers to Iraq makes it tough for Bush to bring American troops home any time soon. On the flip side, persistent questions about the rationale for the war make it harder for Bush to let the U.S. death toll — now more than 1,100 — continue to climb.
Having challenged the world's terrorists, Bush has little choice but to ramp up his fight against Usama bin Laden and scores of other terrorists who are believed to be plotting attacks against the United States and its allies.
"Part of the jargon is 'staying the course,' but you can also be stuck in the course," American University political scientist Alan J. Lichtman says about Bush's restricted options abroad and at home.
Because of soaring deficits and the large tax cuts Bush used to prime the U.S. economy, the president as a second-termer would face a tight federal budget that would leave little room for expansive — and expensive — new initiatives to create jobs and make health care more affordable.
And since baby boomers aren't getting any younger, Bush would have to figure out a way to pay future Social Security benefits and overhaul the system, a campaign promise from 2000 he's yet to fulfill.
Second terms eventually turn presidents into lame ducks, but they're also for legacy-building. So if Bush gets four more years, he'll be attacking all these problems while trying to make sure his personal stamp is affixed on presidential history. His second-term platform includes a still-unspecified plan to overhaul the tax code, possibly a brick in a Bush II legacy.
The Supreme Court may offer another legacy opportunity. In all likelihood the next president will fill several high-court vacancies and, for conservatives, the crowning glory of Bush's administration would be to install justices who would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
In a second term, perhaps with more Republicans in Congress, Bush also could pursue causes like banning gay marriage — although he was unable to win on that that issue with a GOP Congress the last four years. To the dismay of conservatives, Bush also failed to tame the growth of government in his first term.
If he's re-elected, Bush's first job likely would be changing nameplates on the chairs in the Cabinet Room.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has been widely expected to be first out the door. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson have said, or hinted, that they don't plan to stick around. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hasn't said what his plans are, but many expect him to leave — if not right away, then after a year or so.
The faces of a Bush administration II would be different, but its style would likely be the same.
"You can't change somebody's stripes," said White House communications director Dan Bartlett. "He is who he is."
Bush doesn't fancy stuffy, formal affairs so it's unlikely he'd start hosting a spate of state dinners. The president probably would continue spending a good bit of time at his Texas ranch. Foreign travel? Not any more or less, Bartlett said.
More important, people could no longer question whether Bush was making decisions with an eye toward his own re-election.
"There's always a different feel to a second term," Bartlett said. "People don't read into things, looking for motives or double meanings because of a pending election."
Getting his policies passed is a different matter. If the Republicans lose one chamber of Congress, Bush could become a lame duck president quite quickly.
Bush has pledged to expand federal job training programs, increase testing of high school students to make sure they're ready for the work force or college, and target federal aid to areas hard-hit by the estimated 820,000 jobs lost on his watch. He wants to shore up funding for Social Security by letting younger workers set up private retirement accounts. Bush also has a slew of health care proposals to limit malpractice awards, which he says is driving up costs, and help individuals, small businesses and poorer Americans afford coverage.
Regardless of what Bush would push in a second term, he'll be restricted by the ballooning deficit — not to mention the $4 billion-a-month war bill and continued cries for smaller government from his conservative base of supporters.
"Whoever is elected next time around is going to walk into a budgetary buzzsaw because of deficits," said Henry J. Aaron, an economics analyst at the liberal Brookings Institution. "That may well cause even this administration to sober up."
On the international front, Bush promises to continue using America's military might to fight terrorists abroad so they don't strike on U.S. soil again. Democrats say Bush has made that more difficult because he has alienated U.S. allies over Iraq. Besides Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terrorism, a growing threat is nuclear proliferation, says Kerry foreign policy adviser Rand Beers.
Bush's No. 1 foreign policy challenge is finding an extrication from Iraq that doesn't destroy his presidency. But the most dangerous issue he'd face is weapons proliferation in North Korea and Iran, or other nations."
On Iran, Bush has two arguments to consider. Some Bush advisers lean toward using military force to destroy nuclear facilities or equipment in Iran to delay any work they might be doing. Others are content to keep helping reform-minded Iranians in an effort to lessen the Muslim clerics' grip on power in Tehran.
On North Korea, the United States has been working, so far unsuccessfully, with four other nations to persuade the communist nation to give up it nuclear weapons program.
It's unclear whether Bush would continue what Democrats say has been a me-not-we approach to international relations.
"Some calculate that he's going to try to show the American people that he's not going to be a bull in a China shop, or that if he is, he's going to be a kinder, gentler bull," said Julianne Smith, an international security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Others think winning re-election would strengthen Bush's resolve — and his standing in European capitals and beyond.
"The mere fact that he's re-elected will throw real fear into the powers that be in Al Qaeda, in Tehran, in Pyongyang, or wherever that this guy's still going to be around and that he's a tough customer to deal with," said Edwin Feulner, president of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank in Washington.
"Bush will be more credible internationally," Feulner said, "and the Jacque Chiracs of the world will not be able to take the cheap shots at him that they have in the past."