The war in Iraq and terrorism were the key issues in the 2004 election, along with taxes, the economy, and health care. The Democrats nominated Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Vietnam veteran whose political career was based on opposition to that war. While supporting the use of force in 2002, he consistently criticized Bush's Iraq policy during the campaign, recognizing that a majority of Americans now believed the war was a mistake. But the president won a narrow popular and electoral vote victory, and the Republicans increased their control in both the Senate and the House. Despite opposition to the war, voters apparently trusted the Republicans more than the Democrats to handle the ongoing threat from international terrorism.
Early in his second term, the president focused on reform of the social security. Projections indicated that the system would begin to pay out more than it took in by 2018 as the baby boom generation began to retire. He proposed allowing younger workers to put part of their money that went to social security taxes in personal retirement accounts. Critics charged the proposal was tantamount to the "privatization of social security," and were able to block action on his proposals. Another policy area high on the administration's reform agenda was immigration. Initial attempts to address the issue were put on hold by 9/11, but a renewed effort began midway into the second term. Unlike social security, the president did find bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform. The legislation contained four main provisions—increased attention to and funding for border security, greater accountability for employers who hire illegal immigrants, a guest worker program, and a process by which illegal immigrants in the United States could qualify for citizenship. The last item was widely attacked by conservatives as "amnesty," which was enough to kill the bill in 2007.
The retirement of Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, followed by the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist in 2005, allowed the president to make two nominations to the Supreme Court. The appointments of John Roberts, who became the new chief justice, and Samuel Alito were widely believed at the time to strengthen the conservative forces on the Court even though it remained closely divided. This was apparently borne out in several recent 5-4 decisions. The Roberts Court ruled the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (2003) was constitutional, held that race cannot be used in plans either to achieve or maintain integration in the public schools, and struck down key provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (2002).
Iraq and the war on terrorism remained the top foreign policy priorities. With pressure mounting for a change in direction, the president approved an increase in American forces in Iraq to pacify Baghdad and other key areas. The 30,000 troop "surge" was in place by the summer of 2007. In Afghanistan, the coalition faced a growing Taliban insurgency, and NATO troops replaced Americans in early 2006 in the southern part of the country. International support for the fighting in Afghanistan was broadly based in comparison to Iraq. Failure to show progress in Iraq had political costs; Democrats regained control of both houses of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections, largely because of dissatisfaction with the war. The administration faced difficulties in the broader Middle East as well. The road map for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which the United States, the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia (the Quartet) advanced in 2003, called for the creation of an independent Palestine within two years. Little progress was made toward that goal, however. The United States strongly backed Israel in the 2006 Second Israel-Lebanon War. Iran's ongoing nuclear program, which its government claims is only for peaceful purposes, was strongly opposed. The Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran for failing to stop its uranium enrichment activities. North Korea's development of nuclear weapons was another cause for concern. The United States, along with South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China, participated in protracted talks with North Korea that ultimately produced results. Despite its fall 2006 nuclear test, North Korea agreed to close its main nuclear reactor and allow international inspectors back into the country in mid-2007.