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Bush's to-do list: Set tone for next four years

By Frank Sesno
CNN Washington Bureau Chief

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

'W' stands for who, what, when, where, why

Beyond the pomp



WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Now comes the fun part. Those of us who live and breathe Washington revel in the pomp, history, words and meaning of moments like this. Inaugurations define presidents and their times. The next few days will give us the opening words to the next chapter of this nation's story.

Take a walk past the west front of the Capitol where the new president will address his fellow citizens, or stroll by the reviewing stand in front of the White House -- you can almost hear the crowds from years past. You can almost smell the food at the parties. You can close your eyes and sense the drama, eloquence and passion of these quadrennial occasions.

In his brief inaugural in 1865, Abraham Lincoln urged healing and forgiveness to move the country beyond the Civil War, a conflict that claimed the lives of a half-million Americans. "With malice toward none, with charity for all," he declared, "let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds" and to "achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace." We are still working at it.

Nearly 70 years later, Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 asserted his "firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The words echoed across the land as citizens huddled around their radios. It was a desperately fearful time. Unemployment and homelessness were daily realities. Tyranny was spreading around the globe, ultimately bringing with it war and genocide that would scar humanity for all time.

At the dawning of the 1960s, John Kennedy declared "that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans." He spoke with youth and vigor, idealism and purpose. We would walk on the moon and cure disease. But the decade also saw the nuclear menace of the Cold War, the upheaval of the civil rights movement and a war that would tear the fabric of the nation.

Eight years ago, Bill Clinton hoped to re-ignite the nation's idealism. He pledged "an end to the era of deadlock and drift." He spoke of "a new season of American renewal." During the Clinton years, the economy boomed and the deficit disappeared. But his first inaugural words certainly did not forecast the scandal and the wild ride of the 1990s.

Now it is George W. Bush's turn.

'W' stands for who, what, when, where, why

Bush ran as a compassionate conservative, someone who would reach out across the aisle and bring people together. He won the election with one of the closest margins imaginable in the Electoral College, an outcome some will always find suspect. He faces a narrowly divided House of Representatives and a 50-50 Senate in a town that many lawmakers and observers say has turned toxic with partisan rancor in recent years.

The nation that Bush leads faces new uncertainties over its domestic economy and the world beyond. The United States does not face a clear, defining challenge to focus attention and unite the public.

Listen closely, then, to Saturday's inaugural, because Bush's words will set the priorities and the tone that will mark his era and preview debate over real decisions that lie ahead -- real decisions that will shape real lives.

What about the nation's schools that are crumbling, overcrowded or simply failing the students? Bush wants schools to be held more accountable and parents to have access to vouchers to help pay for private school. Opponents say teachers will teach to test scores, and vouchers will drain the public schools of money and support.

What about the economy? Bush wants a sweeping cut in the income tax, which he says is needed to get the economy back on track and to put some of the surplus back in the hands of the people. Many Democrats say cutting taxes would unfairly favor the rich, pull too much out of the Treasury and make it hard to pay off the national debt or reform Social Security. And, the same Democrats say, it would be of little value in priming the economy.

And what about reforming Social Security? Will Bush and Congress decisively tackle one of our most politically and socially difficult issues? Will they raise the retirement age? Restrict benefits? Let people put some of their federal withholdings into private accounts?

Let's go global. Bush and his team make an impassioned case for a national missile defense to protect the United States against biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Skeptics argue that a national missile defense would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, jeopardize other arms control treaties, and may not even work.

Beyond the pomp

Beyond the policies, the politics tell us a lot about who we are and where we are going.

Bush's chief challenge will be to forge coalitions and consensus. He will be able to take nothing for granted. He will know that every speech and every vote brings an added calculation because of the great divide on Capitol Hill, the narrowness of his own victory and the political jockeying for the 2002 elections already under way.

And yet both sides know they will be measured by results. They may surprise the pundits who predict nothing will get done.

We will listen closely to Bush's inaugural speech. We will tug at the phrases that suggest how he will work and what he will put first. We will hear the words and glimpse the images that will be the first of the Bush era.

And we will have some fun. We will watch the parades and go to the parties. And we will see who dances with whom.

  • The Inauguration of the 43rd President
  • Election 2000 Teen guide to presidential transition
y: why it matters archives: U.S. Politics 2000

George W. Bush for President
Bush-Cheney Presidential Transition Foundation
Presidential Inaugural Committee 2001
Republican National Committee
The White House

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