By Paul Magnusson
President George W. Bush as conciliator? It's not a role he has played often as Commander-in-Chief. But with his approval rating at the lowest ebb of his Presidency and his long-stalled energy plan upstaged by soaring gasoline prices, Bush opened his fourth prime-time press conference of his second term by appealing to opposition Democrats to embrace revisions in his floundering Social Security plan that sounded more liberal than conservative.
At the end of his 60-day blitz on behalf of "voluntary, personal accounts" and the end of his first 100 days as a lame duck President, Bush sought to place himself above the partisan fray that has stymied his legislative initiatives and judicial nominations on Capitol Hill. He embraced a Democratic idea -- putting Social Security on a sounder fiscal path by cutting future benefits for the wealthy while protecting the working class -- as a gesture across the aisle to his opponents.
Under the revised Bush plan, wealthier retirees would find their Social Security checks indexed to inflation, while those going to less well-off workers -- about 30% of retirees -- would be adjusted to yearly increases in real wages, a higher figure than the inflation index. As for Democratic opposition to personal accounts, "Why should ownership be confined only to rich people?" Bush asked, striking a quite reasonable tone.
"I'VE BEEN DISAPPOINTED."
He insisted that "Social Security is too important for politics as usual," But he also applied the logic to a wide range of issues both foreign and domestic. Defending his picks of 10 strong conservatives for the federal bench, Bush nonetheless pointedly refused to agree with critics in the Christian Right who have charged that Democrats are blocking confirmation because the judges are "people of faith." Religious persecution? Said Bush: "I just don't agree."
No, the President was more saddened than angry with the vituperative Washington climate. "I've been disappointed," he said. "It's just a lot of politics in town...the American people expect us to put our politics aside."
In the area of foreign policy, Bush was equally as expansive. Rather than condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin for agreeing to supply Iran with uranium fuel, Bush praised his counterpart for agreeing to collect and secure the material once it has been enriched so it couldn't be diverted for weapons use. A reasonable-enough approach.
Was he angry with Democrats for their skewering of John Bolton, Bush's pick as U.N. ambassador? Heck no. "I think the United Nations is important." said Bush, and Bolton does, too.
Bush praised China for its efforts to persuade North Korea to cease its nuclear weapons program. Should America act unilaterally? No. Bush instead proposed to "include people in the neighborhood." Only dictator Kim Jong-il came in for solid criticism as a "dangerous person" who "starves his people."
Even terrorists saw Bush's softer, more reasoning side. "(W)hen we find someone who might do harm to the American people, we will detain them," he pledged. No more "dead or alive" or "Bring 'em on" for this President.
THEY WANT THEIR TV.
Democratic leaders quickly dismissed Bush's tinkering with his Social Security plan, warning in a joint House-Senate statement that it would "slash guaranteed Social Security benefits and burden future generations with trillions of dollars of new debt largely borrowed [from] China and Japan."
Yet the President's audience beyond the Beltway might find the New Bush more appealing. Although he repeated his assurances that he doesn't govern according to polls, strategists from both parties will be carefully dissecting the public reaction to the President's mild-mannered press conference.
Bush wrapped up his appeal by considering the unfortunate viewers whose programs were interrupted. "I don't want to cut into these TV shows that are getting ready to air. Then he added with a grin, and to much laughter, "for the sake of the economy." Such a conciliator.
Magnusson is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau