Campaign '04 Is Over, But Bush's Hard Work Is Just Beginning

He faces economic challenges, wars that have no end in sight.

And just like that, Campaign '04 is history.

This year's race for the White House is unlikely to be remembered as the most eloquent. Despite the small armies of speechwriters employed by both camps, there was little uplifting rhetoric and no truly memorable catchphrases.

There were memorable moments, though. History will remember Howard Dean's rebel yell last January as the beginning of the end of the former Vermont governor's campaign (see "Remixers Make Howard Dean's Scream Funky And Danceable"). Bush's fidgety performance during Debate I allowed Kerry to jump five points in the polls overnight. Kerry's appearance in full hunting camouflage with less than two weeks before Election Day was the most contrived photo-op of the year.

As for more meaningful take-aways from Campaign 2004, Tuesday's results gave officials in both parties plenty to chew on for the next four years, particularly regarding the youth vote (see "20 Million Loud And Then Some: Young Voters Storm The Polls").

Once the glow of their win fades, Republican operatives will try to understand why young Americans, who came to the polls in record numbers, were so unenthusiastic about President Bush. While the president won the popular vote, he received just 44 percent support, compared to 54 percent for Kerry, from young voters. Compare those numbers to 2000, when young voters were virtually split between Bush and Al Gore, and the need for Republicans to rebuild bridges with America's youth becomes increasingly clear.

For their part, Democrats will no doubt be asking how they can get even more 18- to 29-year-olds to the polls, not just for the next presidential campaign in 2008 but for the midterm elections in 2006. Turnout among young people jumped dramatically to 21 million in 2004, from 16 million in 2000. Still, just 52 percent of voters under the age of 30 went to the polls, compared to 60 percent of the population as a whole. If young people had matched the turnout of their elders on Tuesday, Kerry would likely be the president-elect today.

For President Bush, it's back to the White House, where a list of daunting challenges awaits him (see "Bush Pledges To Earn The Support Of All Americans"). Indeed, historians might eventually look back on 2004 as the "be careful what you wish for" campaign, because what lies ahead makes one wonder why anyone would want the job at all.

Consider:

  • Our economy has recovered from recession but still isn't exactly hitting on all cylinders. Meanwhile, white- and blue-collar American workers face increased competition from better-trained low-wage workers in India and China.

  • The U.S. government is operating under the largest debt in history (as measured in current dollars).

  • Millions of baby boomers are about to retire, and unless changes are made, they could drain social security into insolvency.

  • Our 138,000 troops on the ground in Iraq come under daily attack as they try to build a democracy from scratch in that nation.

  • Osama bin Laden.

In other words, we're racking up a huge debt annually, a gigantic bill is on the horizon and we're involved in two costly wars that have no end in sight.

During his campaign, President Bush pledged to cut the deficit in half in five years. At the same time, he said the tax cuts established during his first term would be made permanent and Social Security would be partially privatized to allow young workers to put some of their earnings straight into the stock market. That first proposal would likely cost $1.7 trillion, the second between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, perhaps more.

Still, the president is well-positioned to pursue any portion of his ambitious agenda. He hardly won re-election by a landslide, but his margin of victory was substantial enough to instill fear in the hearts of lobbyists, congresspeople and others who make the wheels spin in Washington. Even the final holdouts in the national media must respect Bush's extraordinary political skills.

Most importantly, the president will enter his second term with expanded Republican majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. There may have been conciliatory references to working across party lines in Bush's remarks Wednesday, but make no mistake: He will be able to pass much of his agenda without capturing a single Democratic vote.