Bush Readies Speeches With Legacy in Mind

WASHINGTON -- As he prepares to launch his second term, President George W. Bush is aiming for nothing less than a legacy that would rank him among the United States' great presidents.

He wants to be remembered as a public servant who promoted political freedom abroad and economic freedom at home, a leader who did not recoil from the big problems that developed early in his first term, notably the 2001 recession and the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks.

Yet as the president begins making that case to the American people -- starting with his second inaugural address Thursday, followed by the annual State of the Union speech 13 days later -- he will in many ways be dealing from a position of weakness.

Bush is saddled with job approval ratings barely above 50 percent -- ahead of only President Nixon among newly re-elected second-term presidents since World War II. Some of his top priorities, including Social Security restructuring and immigration issues, face skepticism from key Republican lawmakers. And recent polls suggest that the public does not subscribe to key aspects of his agenda.

Historians and analysts such as Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist, warn that Bush is in danger of overreaching in his second term. "What he needs to do is to galvanize support, in and outside of Washington, to try to inspire a new beginning at a time when his bare-majority approval scores are low by recent standards for just-re-elected presidents and many in his own party, not to mention Democrats, are already in open revolt against his agenda," Buchanan said.

Undaunted, Bush speaks with relish about spending political capital to achieve what is an unusually activist lame-duck agenda. His two speeches will give him a perfect opportunity to lay out that agenda.

"In many ways, they are different speeches," said Mike Gerson, the president's chief speechwriter.

"The inaugural will be broad, with principles and philosophical commitments. The State of the Union will be much more of a blueprint, with details flushed out. They are complementary but very different."

The president and his senior aides are still polishing both speeches -- Bush held a second dress rehearsal for his inaugural address Monday morning. But top White House officials and the president have more than telegraphed his intentions in recent interviews.

In two postelection news conferences and a series of interviews, Bush came across as confident, grateful to voters for renewing his White House lease and eager to get on with the public's business.