So Much for a Smooth Second Term

President Bush’s second term, which doesn’t officially begin until his Jan. 20 inauguration, already is getting off to a rocky start.

Questions about the administration’s speed in responding to the tsunami disaster, along with reservations about attorney-general nominee Alberto Gonzales and Bush’s Social Security reform proposal, provide evidence that the nation’s 43rd president won’t benefit from the sort of honeymoon he had upon assuming office in January 2001.

The president, who spent the week after Christmas at his Crawford, Texas, ranch monitoring world affairs, also has yet to name a replacement for outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Bush’s first choice, former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, withdrew from consideration when questions arose about his background.

And there has been substantial disparagement of the president’s desire to proceed with an inauguration extravaganza said to exceed $40 million at a time of catastrophe in Asia and war in Iraq.

At a news conference two days after his re-election victory over Democrat John Kerry, Bush said that “Americans are expecting a bipartisan effort and results” and expressed his intent to “reach out to everyone who shares our goals.”

With the inauguration now just a couple of weeks away, it appears the president is falling short in that regard.

The White House has dismissed critics, rejecting their barbs as political business as usual.

Scott McClellan, the president’s press secretary, said Bush “immediately began acting on” the U.S. response to the South Asian disaster _ despite claims he stalled for three days after the event _ and has pledged $350 million as an initial offering.

But to some that’s not enough.

America’s contribution is paltry given the nation’s vast resources, according to James E. Jennings, president of Conscience International, which is sending a medical and public health team to Indonesia.

“While the American public has donated generously to victims of the Asian tsunami disaster, the U.S. government has been slow and parsimonious, offering far less than Japan,” Jennings said. “Even though the U.S. is the world’s wealthiest nation, many countries give more as a percentage of their GDP than the U.S. does, so it is fair to say that the wealthiest nation is indeed stingy in relation to its wealth, as former President Carter has frequently pointed out.”

McClellan said the United States is prepared to provide more help “as needed.”

“But they’re continuing to assess conditions on the ground and what may be needed going forward, not only in the immediate term, but the longer term, as well, because this is going to be a long-term project,” McClellan said. “…(T)he United States will be in this for the long haul, long after the media stops focusing on this at the top of the newscast or stops putting it on the front page of the papers.”

Meanwhile, the administration is gearing up for a heated debate over Gonzales, the White House counsel who is Bush’s choice to replace John Ashcroft as head of the Department of Justice. Critics are focusing on Gonzales’ views of torture, noting that he approved a memo contending that the president “wasn’t bound by laws prohibiting torture and that government agents who might torture prisoners at his direction couldn’t be prosecuted by the Justice Department.”

The memo stated the president has the authority “to approve almost any physical or psychological action during interrogation, up to and including torture.” Liberal groups, like, have called for Gonzales’ defeat, although it appears he will prevail in his confirmation hearings before the Republican-controlled Senate.

McClellan said Gonzales is “a very trusted adviser of the president who has done an outstanding job in his role as counsel to the president.”

“The policy of the administration has been very clear from the beginning that we adhere to our laws and our treaty obligations,” McClellan said. “That’s the policy that the president set and that’s the policy he expects to be followed. And he made it very clear, previously, as well, that we do not condone torture and he would never authorize the use of torture.”

But the biggest battle appears to be gearing up over Social Security and the president’s initiative to permit younger workers to divert part of their payroll taxes to personal savings accounts. Bush has made reform the top domestic priority of his second term despite opposition from AARP, an advocacy group for older Americans, and Democrats, who already have launched an attack.

“The administration’s plan represents a long, slow and painful death for Social Security,” said Sen. John Corzine, D-N.J. “These cuts would undermine the reason we have Social Security in the first place, which is to help people maintain a reasonable and dignified standard of living in retirement. Under President Bush’s plan, seniors would suffer much sharper drops in their income when they retired than they do today, and the promise of Social Security from its founding would be compromised forever.”

(E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)