Bush's Bold Agenda, Soaring Stakes ; Wednesday's Unveiling of a $400 Billion Prescription-Drug Plan Is Latest Move for an Administration Bent on Shaping History

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To some, President Bush has taken on an appropriately ambitious agenda - from a war that aims to remake the map of the Middle East to a domestic plan that includes big new tax cuts and a $400 billion prescription-drug plan for senior citizens. Routing Saddam Hussein, a popular goal with Americans, would add a fresh infusion of optimism to the US economy.

To others, Bush is more than proactive: He is taking policy risks that go well beyond what events dictate. The result, skeptics warn, could be a disastrous entanglement in a part of the world most inhospitable to Americans - and a ballooning deficit that could hobble the economy for years to come.

In his relatively short political life, Bush has gone far by being bold, while playing down expectations. In his first race for Texas governor, in 1994, he took on a titan, incumbent Democratic Gov. Ann Richards, and won. In his 2000 presidential race, he defied the odds again by beating the incumbent party amid peace and prosperity.

Last fall, he put his political prestige on the line in an unprecedented campaigning spree - and helped the Republican Party sweep control of Congress.

But nothing in Bush's prologue compares with his current to-do list, the mother of all presidential agendas. And expectations for what Bush can achieve have never been higher.

'High-wire acts' in Washington

"He's engaged in high-wire acts all across the policy field," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin, and a longtime Bush-watcher. "To have so much on the plate at the same time is contrary to the received wisdom, in terms of what presidents should do to minimize political vulnerability. There are too many ways to fail."

The word "failure" is not in the White House's vocabulary. Neither is the word "risk," except when framed against what Bush's advisers see as the larger risk of inaction. Events have dictated the president's course, in the White House's view. In public, there is no sense that, in the face of a war against terrorism and a flagging economy, the president could be contemplating any other course of action but the one he has embarked upon.

"From the president's point of view, the worst risk is to do nothing in the face of the threat of Saddam Hussein, post-Sept. 11," says Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman. "The president has to weigh at what point does the balance tip between the risk of action, which could lead to fatalities, versus the risk of inaction, which could leave us open and vulnerable to another attack like 9/11."

The economy and tax cuts figure into the same equation. "Just because we may go to war, should we not support policies that make the economy grow?" Mr. Fleischer says. "There have to be jobs for the military to come home to. That requires economic growth. For that, we need tax relief."

Tuesday, Bush focused on Medicare, unveiling his administration's plan to offer prescription drug benefits to seniors. …


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