Rally Cry

By Charlie Cook, National Journal

Saying that the next major speech to be given by a president is "the most important of his career" has become a tired cliche. After all, no president gets the job without having delivered a number of very important speeches.

But George W. Bush's second inaugural address truly will be an important opportunity for this president to frame his second-term agenda -- the goals he'll attempt to achieve despite circumstances that are far from ideal.

A newly re-elected president who won with a landslide, enjoyed a 65 percent job-approval rating, and was overseeing a substantial federal budget surplus in a time of peace would have difficulty securing major changes to the Social Security system and the tax code.

But Bush was re-elected with just 51 percent of the popular vote, the lowest percentage for any successful incumbent in modern history. His job-approval rating has long hovered between 48 percent and 53 percent. He faces a huge federal budget deficit and is embroiled in a controversial war that is not going at all well. So, achieving his top domestic goals will be an enormous challenge, to put it mildly.

Revamping Social Security and the tax code are bigger challenges than any of the legislative endeavors he undertook during his first term. Persuading politicians to cut voters' taxes is not exactly the equivalent of forcing water to run uphill. Likewise, securing passage of Bush's education package was not one of the more difficult challenges that a president has faced, nor was giving seniors a prescription drug benefit. Those were easy chores, compared with the monumental tasks ahead.

Yet, it's worth remembering that despite an anemic economy, sluggish job growth, a troublesome war, gigantic federal budget deficits, and a highly polarized electorate, Bush did in fact win re-election, thanks in large part to a brilliantly designed and masterfully executed campaign strategy.

The hallmarks of that successful campaign were sound judgment, careful planning, strict discipline, and flawless execution -- characteristics that have been somewhat missing from the White House since the election. The nomination of Bernard Kerik to be secretary of Homeland Security, the horrible mishandling of the retention of a very able John Snow as Treasury secretary, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's remarks about inadequate preparation for war, and the initial lowballing of the U.S. pledge of relief funds for tsunami victims while Bush remained out of sight at his ranch, these kinds of mistakes -- exhibiting lousy and hasty judgment, loose lips, and insensitivity -- are not what got the Bush team re-elected. And they certainly haven't helped position the president for his second term.

Bush's address this Thursday needs to put an end to this string of blunders and seize the moral and political high ground as the administration prepares to battle for its agenda. Congressional Republicans need to feel comfortable standing with Bush on his top domestic priorities. It was one thing to back Bush, their party leader, as he was preparing to seek re-election; but now that his contract has been renewed, if they see the choice on a key vote as being between building Bush's legacy and ensuring their own political survival, self-interest will carry the day. Bush must make his troops on Capitol Hill feel good about backing him again and confident that it is the right thing to do.

They do not now, and that is dangerous for Bush's agenda.

With this speech, Bush must also convince Southern Democrats, mindful of their party's disastrous showing in their region last November, that they'd better think long and hard before they take him on. Similarly, the administration needs the few House Democrats who represent competitive districts to decide that they'd be better off politically if they went along with Bush's agenda. Given the likelihood that on the toughest votes, Bush will lose a few Republicans, he'll need at least some Democratic support in the House.

In the Senate, Republicans have a 55-45 partisan majority, but ideologically, the chamber has roughly 51 conservatives, 10 moderates, and 39 liberals. To prevent a successful filibuster, Bush needs at least five Democrats or at least nine moderates to side with him, even if he has every Republican and every conservative.

The bottom line is that this inaugural address really is Bush's opportunity to capture the momentum that most presidents get when re-elected but that he is missing.