Bush vows to push reforms but sidesteps reshuffle

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The Independent US

A triumphant President George Bush once more extended an olive branch to his political opponents yesterday but signalled that, both abroad and at home, the style and substance of his governing was unlikely to change in a second term.

At a rare press conference 24 hours after his narrow but decisive victory over the Democratic challenger John Kerry, Mr Bush claimed he had earned new political capital in this election "and I'm going to spend it on what I told the people I'd spend it on".

Speaking after chairing his first post-election cabinet meeting, he vowed to press for social security and tax reform and to make the massive tax cuts of his first term permanent. Abroad, the second Bush administration will continue its unrelenting war on terror.

Smiling and relaxed and joking to the reporters he usually keeps at a safe distance, the President brushed aside questions about an image problem for America in the outside world, indicating foreign criticism would not affect his policies.

He also deflected questions about the cabinet changes wellnigh certain in the next few days or weeks, and refused to be drawn on the contentious issue of judicial appointments to the Supreme Court, of which he is likely to make at least one, perhaps as many as three, before he leaves office in 2009.

John Ashcroft, the conservative and controversial Attorney General, is considered virtually certain to step down soon, for health and personal reasons. Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and prominent on the campaign trail this autumn, is among the mooted replacements.

At the State Department, Colin Powell has given no firm hint he plans to leave the administration but many suspect he will soon do so, exhausted after being at the end of so many losing battles with the Pentagon.

Condoleezza Rice may be changing jobs after four years as Mr Bush's national security adviser, amid speculation she could take over from Donald Rumsfeld as Defence Secretary. Among her possible successors are Mr Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. Mr Bush left last night for a long weekend at Camp David, where he will mull his options.

In reality, this President - the same as every re-elected incumbent - has a window of a year or 18 months to secure his goals, while his prestige and authority is at its highest, and before the focus switches to the 2006 mid-term elections and then to the Presidential contest of 2008.

Reforming energy invariably ebbs during second term. They also have a nasty habit of being overwhelmed by scandal - look no further than the 1986 Iran-Contra affair from which Ronald Reagan never really recovered, and the Monica Lewinsky debacle of 1998 which led to impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton.

Mr Bush's main concern is to exploit this rare opportunity to drive his agenda through a Congress more solidly in Republican hands than ever. After suffering losses in both Senate and House, the Democrats' last slice of power in Washington consists of their 45 Senate seats, enough to stage filibusters.

That, however, would be the ultimate weapon, amounting to a declaration of war between the parties, destroying any prospect of the cross-party alliances Mr Bush will need, especially for social security reform.

"Americans expect a bipartisan effort and results," he said. "I will reach out to everyone who shares our goals."

An acid test of that promise is likely soon, if Chief Justice William Rehnquist, now 80 and suffering from thyroid cancer, steps down. Mr Bush knows that to pick an arch-conservative jurist would enrage Democrats, poisoning the atmosphere for his other goals. Mr Bush promised to reach out to estranged allies, upset by his handling of the Iraq war. But foreign expectations of a new-style, conciliatory Bush should not be set too high. Challenged on America's unpopularity in the world, he admitted he had been criticised. "There's a certain attitude by some that says it's a waste of time to try to promote free societies in parts of the world," referring to the invasion of Iraq," he said.

"Remember, I went to London [in November 2003] to talk about my vision of spreading freedom throughout the Greater Middle East and I fully understand that might rankle some, and be viewed by some as folly."

CNN-Gallup found that 51 per cent of Americans were pleased with the result, but the 48 per cent who backed Mr Kerry were split between 38 per cent who were upset, and 9 per cent who did not care either way.

Washington waded into a diplomatic crisis yesterday, less than 24 hours after the US election result, recognising the former Yugoslav Republic Macedonia (FYROM) by its controversially truncated name "Macedonia". The first major policy move since President Bush won a second term was done without consulting the European Union, and flies in the face of strong opposition.