WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) on Thursday vowed to reach out to the whole nation while pursuing his agenda during his second term, saying "the voters of America set the direction of our nation for the next four years."
"I'm honored by the support of our fellow citizens and I'm ready for the job," Bush told reporters in the Old Executive Office Building during his first post-election press conference, where he sketched out his plans for the country's future.
"I feel like it's necessary to move an agenda the American people want to move," with the help of both Republican and Democratic leaders, he added. "I earned capital in the campaign — political capital — and now I intend to spend it."
Earlier in the day, Bush held the first meeting with his Cabinet since Aug. 2.
"I'm proud of every person here — they've done a great job for the country and I've reminded them that even though an election just ended, we've still got work to do," Bush told reporters after the Cabinet meeting but prior to the press conference.
"I made it clear to them [the Cabinet] I was glad the election was over and reminded them that we're here for a reason," Bush said at the meeting. "They understand that it's such an honor to serve America, it's a privilege to sit around this table … and do the nation's business."
After the morning's events, Bush is scheduled to go to the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland for a long weekend now that the grueling and contentious campaign is over.
Meanwhile, Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) is expected to turn in his resignation, sources told FOX News. Ashcroft has for months signaled his desire to leave the Justice Department, sources said, and he could leave as early as January. He has struggled with health issues and was hospitalized in March for gallstone pancreatitis.
In his press conference Thursday, Bush outlined his second-term agenda that includes a tax overhaul, major changes in Social Security so workers can own their own retirement accounts, a plan to cut the record $413 billion deficit in half and an expansion of health care coverage.
Bush also said his administration would "achieve our objectives" of Iraqi "elections on the path to stability." The president sidestepped questions about changes in his Cabinet and potential vacancies in the Supreme Court (search), where Chief Justice William Rehnquist recently disclosed he was undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer.
"I haven't made any decisions on the Cabinet yet," nor about his top staff, Bush said. Along with Ashcroft's expected departure, changes are widely expected in the State Department and elsewhere.
"The word 'burnout' is oftentimes used in Washington and it's used for a reason, because people do burn out," Bush said.
Of the possible Cabinet and staff replacements, Bush said: "I haven't thought about it but I'm going to start thinking about it" at Camp David this weekend. He added that he wants people who will "speak their mind."
"We'll let you know at the appropriate time when decisions have been made," said the president.
As for the nation's highest court, he said, "There's no vacancy for the Supreme Court and I will deal with a vacancy when there is one."
Bush said he'd reach out to countries around the globe, as well as organizations like the European Union and NATO, to help in the War on Terror and spread democracy; he stressed that these are issues that shouldn't be politicized.
"Every American has a stake in the outcome of this war — Republicans, Democrats and Independents," the president said. "We have a solemn duty to protect the American people, and we will."
The newly re-elected president also vowed that in January when the new Congress is sworn in, he will "join with old friends and new friends to make progress for all Americans." He also urged the current Congress to pass remaining appropriations bills that reflect "spending discipline while focusing on our nation's priorities." The House and Senate return later this month.
While urging lawmakers to pass an "effective" intelligence bill, Bush said more education reform likely could happen quickly.
Other issues, like reforming the Social Security system, could take more time, he warned.
"This is more than a problem to be solved — it is an opportunity to help millions of our senior citizens find security and independence from owning something, from ownership," Bush said. "Reforming Social Security will be a priority of my administration — obviously, if it were easy, it would already be done."
In the foreign policy arena, Bush vowed to pursue his doctrine of going after those countries that harbor terrorists, as well as the terrorists themselves. And he wants the controversial USA Patriot Act renewed to help further the War on Terror.
"I believe that when the American president speaks, he'd better mean what he says to keep the world peaceful," Bush said, noting that although there was "deep skepticism" about his moves in Iraq and even Afghanistan, his administration is committed to helping out other countries on the road toward democracy.
On Iraq, he vowed to work with the new government of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) and said he would contemplate sending in more U.S. troops if needed. He qualified that by saying, "I have yet to hear from our commanders on the ground that they need more troops."
A large swath of evangelicals and religious voters went to the polls Tuesday — to which many political observers credit Bush's win. The president was asked if religion could eventually become another political divide, given his own Christian faith.
"I will be your president regardless of your faith and I don't expect you to agree with me in terms of my religion ... No president should try to impose his religion on society," Bush responded, saying that people of all faiths are free to practice in this country. "I don't think you ought to read anything into the politics … whether or not this nation will become a divided nation over religion."
Bush wants to simplify the tax codes to encourage saving and investment, and he would like to put an end to frivolous lawsuits. He also wants to create "opportunity zones" to spur investment in needy communities.
The president also wants to let younger workers divert some of their payroll taxes that fund retirees' Social Security benefits into personal investment accounts similar to 401(k)s. On education, the president wants to expand the No Child Left Behind Act to the upper grades and colleges to ensure they are prepared for the workforce. And the president wants to require states to test students yearly in reading and math in grades 3 through 11.
On Wednesday, the president asked for the support of former presidential rival Sen. John Kerry (search), D-Mass., as he worked to make good on campaign promises.
"Reaching these goals will require the broad support of Americans so today I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent: To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust," Bush told a crowd at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington after Kerry had conceded the race. "A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation. We have one country, one Constitution and one future that binds us. And when we come together and work together, there is no limit to the greatness of America."
Bush on Thursday vowed once again to reach across the political aisle in the interest of the American people.
"I think the Democrats agree we have an obligation to serve our country — I believe there will be a good will, now that the election is over, to work together," Bush said.
Fulfilling a Mandate
The disputed 2000 election left Bush without a mandate, but he governed as if he had one. This year, he became the first presidential candidate since 1988 to win a majority of the popular vote, 51 percent.
"President Bush ran forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future, and the nation responded by giving him a mandate," Vice President Dick Cheney said, introducing Bush Wednesday as the president accepted his re-election. "If ever a man met his moment in history, that man is George W. Bush."
Even before the election, Bush aides started work on a new budget, and the administration is preparing to ask Congress for up to $75 billion more to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and operations against terrorism. The figure indicates the wars' costs — particularly to battle the intensified Iraqi insurgency — are far exceeding expectations laid out early this year.
"This president, I believe, will act boldly," Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., told FOX News on Thursday.
In Iraq, where more than 1,1000 American soldiers have died and a violent insurgency continues, Bush must seek to fulfill his pledge to turn the country into a model democracy for the Arab world and bring U.S. troops home.
Democratic strategist Sascha Burns said the fact Bush won the popular vote gave him a "decisive" victory that will help him lead in a second term. But, she added, he needs to reach out to those who didn't support him.
"I think the president will do well to remember that 49 percent of the American people didn't vote for him … I hope he will try to reconcile this country," Burns said. "It would be the best thing he could do as president, and it would be a good thing for his legacy."
Don Riegle, a former Democratic senator from Michigan, noted that 55 million people voted to oust Bush from office — a fact the newly re-elected president shouldn't take lightly.
"Now I think he's got a basic decision to make — does he try to unite the country or does he go off in an extreme way and divide it even farther," Riegle said, noting that issues both sides agree on are the need to end the war in Iraq, do more for the middle class and get rid of the federal deficit.
"I think there are issues in the middle we can work on," Riegle said. "I'm hoping and praying he'll decide to come to the center and bring the country together, because that's what we need."
FOX News' Anna Persky contributed to this report.