GEORGE W. BUSH is astoundingly popular with the American people. His approval ratings have hovered around the mid-60s or above for nearly two years--a phenomenon whose staying power cannot be explained by an initial reaction of support for the president after September 11. He has singlehandedly unified the Republican party--a party that seemed to be splitting at the seams before Bush's ascendance. He is even surprisingly popular in Democratic areas. In New Jersey he is more popular than the Democratic governor. In California he is winning support among Hispanics. In New York and Minnesota, he trounces likely Democratic rivals in early presidential surveys. These latter margins will obviously shrink closer to Election Day, but it is nonetheless true that George W. Bush has made a connection with a large swath of the American electorate (while driving his opponents into something of a frenzy).

There are many reasons Bush has made this connection. One of them is that since September 11 he has appealed to the optimism and idealism of the American people. Bush looked around the world, even amidst the horror of terrorism and the challenges of war, and saw a chance to help spread democracy across the Arab world. He seized the opportunity to liberate the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq. Last week, at the Coast Guard Academy, Bush declared:

The advance of freedom is more than an interest we pursue. It is a calling we follow. Our country was created in the name and cause of freedom. And if the self-evident truths of our founding are true for us, they are true for all. As a people dedicated to civil rights, we are driven to defend the human rights of others. We are the nation that liberated continents and concentration camps. We are the nation of the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and the Peace Corps. We are the nation that ended the oppression of Afghan women, and we are the nation that closed the torture chambers of Iraq.

With such soaring rhetoric, matched by bold but sensible policy, Bush has turned his opponents into churlish conservatives, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. They are the ones who oppose daring change. They are the ones who found themselves sourly defending the Iraqi status quo. They are the ones who ask the American people to walk away from the noblest elements of their creed.

The administration now has an opportunity to grab the mantle of optimism and idealism in domestic policy as well. It was not long ago that Republicans were fatalistic about domestic social issues. They emphasized the intractability of problems such as crime and welfare, and talked about the limits of social policy. But that began to change in the 1990s. Rudy Giuliani, who was then on the Republican fringe, set out to demonstrate that government could reduce crime, and he succeeded. Welfare reformers such as John Engler, Tommy Thompson, and Stephen Goldsmith set out to show that the underclass need not be an inevitable feature of modern life. They found allies at the neoconservative think tanks and foundations, and among many centrist Democrats, and the movement finally led to the welfare reform act of 1996.

The welfare reform bill, passed by a Republican Congress and finally signed by President Clinton, will go down as one of the most successful pieces of legislation of the last few decades. Liberals warned of a looming catastrophe if welfare rolls were reduced and if recipients were forced to work. They were wrong. They misunderstood how the welfare system had induced people to lead dependent and unproductive lives. They underestimated welfare recipients' capacities, and their commitment to rise and succeed.

The welfare rolls have since dropped by 60 percent. The culture of welfare has been transformed, so that recipients are now expected to work. "Be prepared to work, or be prepared to leave," is the sign at one New York job center. Meanwhile, child poverty rates have fallen to a 25-year low, a huge and measurable improvement in the lives of millions of young children. Last week the Brookings Institution released a study on the decline of high-poverty neighborhoods. During the 1970s and 1980s, according to researcher Paul Jargowsky, the number of people living in these areas of concentrated poverty doubled. But since 1990, the number of people stuck in those neighborhoods has declined by 24 percent, by 2.5 million people.

The welfare reform law is not responsible for all, or even most, of these gains. The decline of concentrated poverty is probably largely the result of recent efforts to tear down the monstrous high-rise public housing projects and replace them with mixed-income low-rise communities. Moreover, the strong 1990s economy enabled millions of welfare recipients to get jobs. Expanded income assistance programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit helped lift children out of poverty.

Still, welfare reform played an important role. It changed the culture, rearranged the incentives, and acted as a catalyst for other improvements that followed. Welfare reform demonstrated that poverty is not always intractable. Good policies can produce real improvements in people's lives. There are reasons to be optimistic and idealistic even in the face of long-running social problems.

Now welfare reform is up for congressional reauthorization. This has been a remarkably low-key affair, generating little debate or public attention. The welfare activists and the mainstream welfare reporters went looking for horror stories after the law was passed. Failing to find them, they have fallen into a sullen stupor. Among media types, only Mickey Kaus, an enthusiastic reform advocate, seems eager to talk about the record.

More astonishing is how little the White House has done to highlight the reauthorization debate. Here is an issue that puts the Democratic party on the defensive. The Democrats are split, with liberals still sourly defending the ancien régime. Extending welfare reform could revive compassionate conservatism, and breathe new life into the hopeful domestic themes that George Bush sounded during the 2000 campaign.

It's true that the White House has proposed a measure that would continue the momentum of welfare reform. It's true that President Bush has delivered a few speeches. But if you were a casual observer of these things, you could easily get the impression that tax cuts comprise the entire Bush domestic policy. Surely this is a mistake.

There are sound policy reasons to highlight welfare reform. The progress we have made in fighting poverty is slowing. In the current economy, welfare rolls are beginning to inch up again. What's more, we still have a way to go in helping families get off public support permanently. Mothers are now more likely to have jobs, but still rely on a panoply of federal programs and subsidies. As Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute notes in a judicious essay in the Winter 2003 issue of the Public Interest, "Liberals were . . . right about the difficulty most mothers leaving welfare would have in becoming financially self-sufficient."

Moreover, states have taken advantage of loopholes in the law to excuse welfare recipients from work requirements. In Massachusetts, for example, only 6 percent of the state's welfare recipients have jobs, and over 90 percent are exempt from work requirements. There is still little institutionalized policy support for marriage, the greatest of all anti-poverty programs.

The Bush administration has tried to close these loopholes, but the entire reauthorization is stalled in Congress--a Republican Congress. It's time to turn up the volume and the heat on this whole issue. It's time to bring the moral conviction and optimistic spirit that has characterized Bush's foreign policy home to the domestic front.

--David Brooks, for the Editors

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