US President George W. Bush begins his second term with the Republican Party in its strongest position in more than 50 years, but his clout is already being tested by Republican doubts about his domestic agenda, rising national unease about Iraq, and the threat of second-term overreaching, officials in both parties say.
With this election producing a second-term Republican president and solid majorities in both the Senate and the House, Bush's party is more dominant than at any time since Herbert Hoover was elected in 1928. As he embarks on an explicit effort to put an imprint on politics and policy that will long outlast his presidency, his advisors are heady over what several described as an opportunity to make a long-lasting realignment in the nation's political balance of power.
But even those advisors said Bush had at most two years before he faced the ebb that historically saps the authority of a second-term incumbent, a relatively short time to sell a far-reaching agenda to a wary Congress and a skeptical public. And Republicans say his situation could be complicated by the absence of an obvious heir, opening the way for competing wings of the party to battle over details and tactics on the very issues Bush is embracing.
Richard Norton Smith, a presidential scholar who is director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, said the Republican Party had "come closer now than they've been at any time in my lifetime" to being the nation's majority party. But Smith said historical cycles over the past century suggested that its dominance might be coming to a close.
"The calendar alone tells you this conservative cycle is long in the tooth," he said. "Add to that the divisions, or latent divisions, that exist with your own coalition. Once Bush is removed from the scene, and once he becomes in effect a lame duck, all those tensions are there."
The White House has described the election results as a mandate, and in his inaugural address, Bush laid out his vision in sweeping terms.
But some Republicans said they were worried about overconfidence, including South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who invoked his experience serving alongside former speaker Newt Gingrich when Republicans first captured the House in 1994.
"Hubris is deadly," Sanford said.
And Gary Bauer, a conservative who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, said that while he applauded Bush's ambition in pursuing two major domestic goals -- overhauling social security and the tax code -- those issues, if handled incorrectly, could undercut Bush's long-term goal for the party.
"They could provide the president's opponents with fodder for some of the old canards, that Republicans don't want a social safety net, that they're the party of the rich, all those things," Bauer said. "It's going to take a very astute effort and massive amounts of presidential involvement to keep that from happening."
Bush received a reminder of the difficulties he faces on the Sunday talk shows, as Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who is talking about running for president, said on ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos that he did not believe the White House had a strategy to extricate the US from Iraq.
On NBC's Meet the Press, Republican Representative Bill Thomas, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, laid out his own ideas for how to change the social security system, which were to a large degree different from what the White House has suggested.