President Bush outlined his second-term agenda yesterday, acknowledging an uncertain path to peace in Iraq and "difficult choices" in revamping Social Security. Unable to say how...

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WASHINGTON — President Bush outlined his second-term agenda yesterday, acknowledging an uncertain path to peace in Iraq and “difficult choices” in revamping Social Security.

Unable to say how long U.S. troops may be in Iraq, Bush said at a news conference exactly a month before his inauguration for a second term that Iraqi forces are not ready to take charge and that Jan. 30 elections are “just the beginning of a process.”

Bush’s comments on Iraq came a day after a fresh spasm of violence left 67 dead in explosions in Najaf and Karbala.

He acknowledged that Americans’ resolve has been shaken by grisly scenes of death and destruction, and he criticized the performance of U.S.-trained Iraqi troops. “No question about it,” he said. “The bombers are having an effect.”

He called the bombings “effective propaganda tools.”

Bush characterized the performance of Iraqi troops as “mixed.”

News-conference highlights

Iraq: President Bush acknowledged the effectiveness of insurgents and criticized the performance of U.S.-trained Iraqi troops.

Social Security: He said Social Security’s future financial shortfall is a crisis that Congress must tackle now, but he didn’t provide details of reform plan.

Rumsfeld: “Beneath that rough and gruff no-nonsense demeanor is a good human being who cares deeply about the military and the grief that war causes,” the president said, brushing aside criticism of his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

Russia: Bush declined to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin despite concerns that he has strengthened authoritarian controls and disagreements over the disputed elections in Ukraine.

“There have been some cases where, when the heat got on, they left the battlefield,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”

According to the State Department, about 115,000 Iraqis have been trained for the security forces, fewer than half of the 274,000 considered necessary to stabilize the country and permit U.S. forces to withdraw.

The president, relaxed and joking with reporters, also declined to provide specifics on a new Social Security plan — “I’m not going to negotiate with myself” — but said Congress should deal with the system’s long-term financial problems now rather than later.

During the 53-minute news conference, held a day before he left to spend the holidays at Camp David, Md., and his Crawford, Texas, ranch, Bush also backed embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The session, his second news conference since his Nov. 2 re-election, also covered immigration, the federal budget, Osama bin Laden and North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. He declined to criticize increasingly antagonistic Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The politics of Social Security and Iraq could dictate Bush’s chances on other items, analysts said, citing efforts to simplify the tax code and limit damages awards in lawsuits. Bush further promised a “tighter” federal budget that reduces the ballooning deficit and pledged to improve an immigration system he said lacks compassion.

Bush’s less-than-glowing assessment of U.S.-trained Iraqi troops contrasted with his previous evaluations, which stressed progress toward the goal of training 200,000 Iraqi security forces by the end of next year. He’s said repeatedly that any hope for a U.S. withdrawal hinges on the ability of Iraqi troops to take over.

He made it clear troop levels in Iraq — which the Pentagon plans to raise from 138,000 to 150,000 in an effort to curb violence during the election — were unlikely to be reduced in the coming year.

Some former administration and congressional officials said the president was trying to change Americans’ expectations of what lay ahead in Iraq.

“He’s clearly moving peoples’ time horizon and understanding of the process forward a year,” said James Dobbins, a veteran diplomat who served as Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan and now directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp. think tank. “It’s prudent to clear up the misunderstanding that previous statements may have created that this election in January is a watershed event after which everything will change for the better.”

Dobbins said Bush wanted to “begin preparing people for the more likely event, which is the insurgency does not diminish, the violence does not subside and the casualty rate does not go down.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a former Congressional Budget Office national-security expert and a foreign-policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the president “was honest in a way he couldn’t be all year.”

“He admitted that it’s not going that well,” O’Hanlon added.

The Iraq war will continue to be led by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, despite mounting criticism from members of Congress, including Republicans. Complaints include a paucity of armored vehicles in Iraq and his failure to personally sign condolence letters to families of soldiers killed in action. “Beneath that rough and gruff, no-nonsense demeanor,” Bush said, “is a good human being who cares deeply about the military, and deeply about the grief that war causes.”

“I know Secretary Rumsfeld’s heart,” Bush added. “I know how much he cares for the troops. He and his wife go out to Walter Reed and Bethesda [military hospitals] all the time to provide comfort and solace.”

On the other major task of his administration, Bush plans to push a new Social Security plan, one allowing recipients to put some money into financial markets. Congress needs to act, he said, because Social Security’s obligations to retirees eventually will overwhelm the system’s finances.

“We’re going to have to explain to members of Congress the crisis is here,” Bush said. “It’s a lot less painful to act now than if we wait.”

Bush has proposed letting younger workers invest a portion of their payroll taxes in private accounts, but he has not divulged details of his proposal.

Democrats said the White House is exaggerating Social Security’s financial problems to justify a plan that involves trillions in transition costs and could reduce benefits. Some cited a Congressional Budget Office report that Social Security is solvent for as long as 50 years with no change.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called on Bush to issue a “detailed plan,” including the “difficult trade-offs among benefit cuts, tax increases and a massive escalation of record deficits.”

On other issues:

• Bush declined to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin for recent anti-democratic moves, such as eliminating the general election of regional governors and increasing control over the media. He stressed that while the United States and Russia did not see eye to eye on many political matters, including the recent disputed election in Ukraine, the two countries had an important mutual security agenda, especially on nuclear issues. In particular, Bush called for giving Russian inspectors greater access to U.S. nuclear facilities, a shift in policy that outside experts described as a “breakthrough” for nuclear-security cooperation.

The remark appeared to be the first acknowledgment by the administration that the United States, in a confidence-building effort, had permitted Russian officials to visit nuclear sites in Texas, New Mexico and South Carolina in recent months to model the kind of openness they would like to see on the Russians’ side.

• The president defended his failed nomination of former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik to be the Homeland Security secretary. Kerik withdrew, citing his failure to pay all the required taxes for a family nanny-housekeeper who may have been in the country illegally. The incident raised questions about the ability of the White House to fully vet its nominees.

“In retrospect he [Kerik] made the right decision to pull his name down,” Bush said. “The lesson learned is continue to vet and ask good questions.”

• Bush said the United States will continue to rely on diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran and North Korea to abandon their suspected nuclear-weapons programs. The United States is involved in six-way negotiations with North Korea and its regional neighbors over the issue. The United States, meanwhile, has taken a back seat to France, Britain and Germany in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear intentions.

• Bush, asked about the location of Osama bin Laden, said: “If I had to guess, I would guess that Osama bin Laden is in a remote region on the Afghan-Pakistan border.”

• The president also addressed criticism that during his first term he was not engaged enough to peaceably settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said he had never held out hope for progress with former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in power.

Arafat died last month. With Palestinians preparing for elections to replace him next month, Bush said, “We’ve got a good chance” for progress. “I know the world is wondering whether or not this is just empty rhetoric,” he said. “The answer is, now is the time to move the process forward.”

Compiled from The Dallas Morning News, The Washington Post, Knight Ridder Newspapers, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press reports.