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Bush approaches new term with big agenda, small approval rating

WASHINGTON—Amid pomp, protest and unprecedented levels of security, President Bush will usher in a second term Thursday by proclaiming the next four years as a period of hope and opportunity at home and abroad, White House officials said.

Bush will use next week's inaugural festivities—from multimillion-dollar parties to his inaugural address—as a springboard for an unusually ambitious second-term agenda that includes spreading democracy in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East and revamping Social Security and the federal tax code.

"The president is hopeful about the opportunities we have to achieve big things and bring peace to the world," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "The president will talk about how the advance of freedom will make the world a better place. He wants to promote an ownership society at home—expanding home ownership and changes in Social Security" to include private investment accounts.

But a survey released Thursday suggests such an ambitious agenda will be a hard sell.

Bush will begin his second term with the lowest approval rating—50 percent—of any president since 1957. Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon tied at 59 percent.

And his priorities for the new term appear out of step with Americans' agenda, the survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found.

Seventy-one percent of those polled said the health care system requires major changes or needs to be overhauled while only 49 percent said the same about Social Security. Nearly half of the survey respondents—47 percent—said Social Security works well and needs only minor changes. Only 27 percent felt the same way about the nation's health care system.

Politics, policy and the recognition of an America living in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, world will permeate inaugural festivities. Several events at the $40 million-plus celebration, titled "Celebrating Freedom, Honoring Service," have a military theme, a reminder of U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and Bush's role as commander in chief.

The events include a reception "Saluting Those Who Serve" and the Commander-in-Chief Ball, which is free for invited members of the military. The Pentagon is selecting the invitees with emphasis on those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The events, coordinated by a private inaugural committee, are being funded by corporate and individual donors who've given as much as $250,000 apiece. The celebration's price tag has raised questions from some Democratic lawmakers about the appropriateness of having such lavish parties when U.S. troops are dying overseas.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., wrote a letter to Bush last week urging him to tone down the festivities and redirect some of the $40 million "towards a use more fitting to these somber times—bonuses or equipment for our troops."

Inaugural committee officials dismissed Weiner's letter.

"It's unfortunate he would make a partisan attack about a nonpartisan event," said Kevin Sheridan, a committee spokesman.

Sheridan said the events will go on as planned. And they will do so under heavy security.

More than 6,000 police officers, 2,500 military personnel and thousands of Secret Service and law enforcement officers from 60 agencies will be using old-fashioned shoe leather and high-tech equipment to protect the inaugural ceremonies from terrorists and demonstrators.

Bush is expected to begin his day at St. John's Episcopal Church with a worship service. At noon, he'll place his hand on the Bible and recite the 35-word oath of office on the West Front of the Capitol. Following his address, he and first lady Laura Bush will ride in a motorcade along a 1.7-mile stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.

McClellan said Bush's speechwriters were putting the finishing touches on his address late last week. He couldn't say how long the speech would be.

Second inaugural speeches present an opportunity and a danger for two-term presidents, historians and political experts say. If done right, the speech can set the tone for the new term and energize lawmakers and the public. If not, it could help usher in early lame-duck status.

"If the president simply tries to convert it into a condensed State of the Union Address, it will get lost in history," said Leon Panetta, former President Clinton's White House chief of staff. "You've got to be able to, in very few words, capture the mood of the country and rally it around a common purpose."

White House officials are convinced they can accomplish that in words and deeds. McClellan said Bush intends to hit the ground running in term two and has begun laying the groundwork on some of his domestic agenda with conferences and events on the economy, Social Security and the legal system.

Bush is also working toward reshaping his image overseas. He'll travel to Europe next month to mend fences with U.S. allies upset over his approach on Iraq.

"He's going to Europe earlier than any elected president in the past," said Simon Serfaty, a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Europe program. "He's trying. I didn't think that was evident in 2003 or early 2004. There's opportunity there to start anew."

And with the recent Palestinian presidential election over, Bush intends to become more actively engaged in finding a solution to the deadly Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The president also hopes that the Jan. 30 election in war-torn Iraq will serve as a catalyst for change in the Middle East.

But Paul Light, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution, said political forces—the 2006 congressional midterm elections and the likelihood of some key lawmakers to position themselves for 2008 presidential runs—will narrow Bush's ability to accomplish anything soon after he is sworn in.

"He's got to celebrate, then get back to business," Light said. "Because there's no second-term honeymoon."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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