It seems to be the fate, or at any rate the decision, of George W. Bush to spend his years in the White House making life easier for the presidents who will succeed him.
After all, the Social Security system won’t collapse on his watch. He could let it rock along (as Bill Clinton did) until his term expires, knowing that the roof will fall in on whomever is president in 2032. Instead, he is taking the responsible course of trying to repair it now, when the cost of doing so is far less than it will be in 27 years.
Similarly, the Iranians almost certainly haven’t managed to develop nuclear weapons yet, and will probably have few, if any, before Bush retires to Texas in four years. Yet the president is clearly determined to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, which could confront the next president with truly ghastly choices.
Then there is North Korea, which has a few nuclear weapons already, and is in the grip of a regime that may well decide to use them. But even here, time would be on the president’s side if he chose (as Clinton did) to stall things along with meaningless negotiations until his term is up, and let his successor face the music. Instead, though, Bush is insisting grimly that North Korea must end its nuclear weapons program now – on his watch.
These are the decisions of a man who’s taking the long view of America’s best interests. On Social Security, the Democrats know very well that the present system is unsustainable and will have to be radically revised if we are not to break faith with future generations. But they are determined not to allow a Republican president to get the credit for reforming this Ponzi scheme, which is the principal remaining jewel in the tattered diadem of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
And having denounced the American attack on Iraq as an unmitigated disaster, the Democrats are simply in no position to endorse military measures against either Iran or North Korea, regardless of what the consequences of failure to do so may be. To be sure, American forces are probably stretched too thin to permit an all-out invasion of either country for the time being, but there are military measures short of that – precision air strikes, for example – that might slow, or even end, their drives for a nuclear capability. The Democrats, firmly in the grip of activists who are against any American military moves whatsoever, would oppose these with all their might.
But President Bush will press on with whatever measures he considers necessary to protect the health and safety of the country, even in the years that stretch beyond his own administration. Since he cannot count on Democratic help, everything will depend on whether he can mobilize public opinion to support his proposals.
That is the purpose of the long swing he has just completed around the country, making speeches in support of his plan for the reform of Social Security. Even some Republican members of Congress have been reluctant to risk backing changes in this program, on which America’s elderly have necessarily learned to depend. (“He doesn’t have to run for office again, but I do,” is the complaint.) The natural human impulse is to boot the ball down the field and let the politicians of the next generation cope with the mess.
But that is not the truly responsible thing to do, and Bush knows it. Four years of experience with this man have taught us that he is a true leader: He is not afraid to tackle jobs that need to be done, even if they could safely be postponed and left to someone else to do (at far greater cost) in the years ahead.
Maybe he will fail. Perhaps Social Security will collapse around the ears of some unlucky future generation, when delay is no longer an option. Perhaps we will have to live in a world in which all sorts of reckless and malevolent dictators can brandish nuclear weapons at us at will. But not if George W. Bush can prevent it. He means to try.