Washington, 14 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush could not have spoken more to the point than when he addressed a news conference on 4 November -- two days after he was reelected: "I earned capital in the campaign -- political capital -- and now I intend to spend it."
But can Bush really afford to act as boldly in his second term as he did in his first?
Leon Fuerth was a senior member of the White House National Security Council in the administration of Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton. Fuerth told RFE/RL that while Bush appears to have a powerful new mandate, several unforeseen obstacles could still stymie his policy objectives.
"I guess you have to take the mandate with a grain of salt. Among other things, the financial circumstances of the United States are not looking good. He'll [Bush will] be lucky if he can get out of Iraq in good shape; I don't think he's got the means to start up another big venture like this. That's why, I think, he's been prepared to let the Europeans try their hand at diplomacy with the Iranians," Fuerth said.
"You cannot assume you're just going to ram through any policies through the Congress, even a Congress of your own party,"
Nathan Brown agrees. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, said Bush's advantages are limited to domestic issues and a friendly Congress.
Internationally, Brown said, Bush's policies have left Washington isolated, with allies likes France and Germany alienated by the Iraq war. Brown said Bush's options are not as wide-ranging as they might appear to be. He, too, points to Iran. "On Iran, they [Bush administration officials] seem to be holding back, clearly very skeptical of the European approach, but not actively disrupting it," he said. "So that in itself is a very marked change. Now, if the Europeans fail in the eyes of the United States, will the United States act more aggressively? I think that's a real possibility."
But Brown told RFE/RL that he does not think more aggressive action would mean war. Instead, he believes the United States would limit itself to sharper diplomatic action, such as sanctions, funding Iran's political opponents and perhaps covert operations.
Both Fuerth and Brown said they expect Bush will be far more occupied with the Palestinian-Israeli peace process in the coming four years. Both men say they believe the administration's disengagement so far is attributable to its distrust of Yasser Arafat. They said that with the death of the Palestinian leader and a replacement due to be elected on 9 January, Bush is likely to resume involvement. Fuerth said the issue is pressing.
"I think he's really got to put some speed on [resume active U.S. involvement in the process], and Arafat's death may give him the chance to do that. The arms-length approach, I think, was always a tactical judgment based on no confidence in Arafat. So now they're going to shuffle the deck and they may conclude that the new guy [Arafat's successor] is someone who should be given a shot [chance]. I think the administration itself could decide to really intensify what it's doing, and they probably will," Fuerth said.
Not everyone agrees that Bush is set to become more accommodating internationally in his second term. One is Allan Lichtman, a professor of U.S. presidential history at American University in Washington. Lichtman told RFE/RL that Bush, like any president, can create his own mandate to govern as he sees fit. He points to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s and Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century as presidents who believed they had mandates, even though each was elected with only a plurality of the popular vote.
Bush not only won a majority of votes on 2 November; his party also gained full control of Congress. Still, Lichtman said even a friendly Congress may assert its independence from time to time. "What really matters is how well and how effectively you govern. And you cannot assume you're just going to ram through any policies through the Congress, even a Congress of your own party," he said. "[President] Franklin Roosevelt won 61 percent of the vote in 1936, and yet in his attempt to add members to the United States Supreme Court, he went down to humiliating defeat."
As Bush seeks to achieve his goals, Lichtman expects the president to continue with the same approach as always. He said Bush tends to spell out his goals in simple terms and then stick to them fiercely.
Lichtman said Bush's relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin is a case in point. He recalls that in the spring of 2001, after the two men first met in Ljubljana, Bush said he had looked into Putin's eyes and saw a man he could trust.
Meanwhile, Lichtman said Putin has limited democracy and media freedom in Russia, with only minor protest from the Bush administration. In Lichtman's opinion, Bush has a hard time admitting a mistake. "Bush does tend to barrel ahead and does not change course easily or happily," he said. "He'd rather stick with what might prove to be a difficult and painful decision than to admit a mistake or make a course correction. And that obviously can lead to a lot of problems when things do not go well or when circumstances change, as they have perhaps with President Putin of Russia."
Lichtman said Bush may temper his foreign policy reach rhetoric the next four years in order to sound cooperative, but the proof will be in his actions -- actions he expects to be at least as unilateral as they have been so far.