After long, difficult August, Bush is facing more challenges

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CRAWFORD, Texas - What a difference a month makes.

In the long, hot stretch of August that President Bush has spent at his ranch, the turn of world events has been sometimes breathtaking. And little of it has been uplifting, particularly for a president heading into the early throes of a re-election campaign.

With Iraq still in postwar turmoil, Bush, who returns to Washington today, must ask Congress for billions of additional dollars for development there - and deal with the prospect of sending more U.S. troops to restore order. Renewed violence has jeopardized his "road map" to Middle East peace. And North Korea is threatening to test some of the nuclear weapons that it says it has been developing.

At home, two key planks of his domestic agenda - a national energy policy and Medicare reform - remain mired in Congress.

"He's certainly in a precarious position," said political analyst Charles Cook, who monitors the politics of both the White House and Capitol Hill.

Some of the challenges were looming before his vacation, and some are new. Since the president left Washington Aug. 2 for a month-long "working vacation" at his Central Texas ranch, the lights went out on nearly 50 million Americans in the Northeast and Midwest. And now, gasoline prices, in part because of the blackout, are soaring to historic highs.

In Iraq, terrorists blew up the United Nations mission in Baghdad, killing its top U.N. diplomat and nearly two dozen others. Hours later in Israel, a Palestinian suicide bomber destroyed a crowded bus, triggering more reprisals from the Israelis and leaving peace prospects in tatters.

Everywhere, it seems, the president is under mounting criticism, at home and abroad.

Democrats vying for his job and other critics, including Republicans and an increasing number of vocal military families, are questioning his Iraq policies, from his rationale for war to the costly postwar redevelopment in which more U.S. military personnel have died than in the major combat that he declared finished May 1.

"This month has brought challenge," acknowledged Karen Hughes, the president's long-time communications adviser.

At the top of the agenda facing Bush when he returns to the White House are the overarching issues of the war against terrorism and the nation's still-sluggish economy.

"He has to be seen as being attentive to them," Cook said, suggesting that by Election Day, Bush's fate would hinge on either issue, or both.

"He's really having to fight two fronts to show the importance of keeping him president for foreign policy and terrorism purposes," he said.

Twice, Bush has pushed large tax cuts through Congress. But the economy, while growing a solid 3.1 percent annually last quarter, is far from the roaring tide that would substantially cut unemployment and, undoubtedly, boost Bush's re-election chances.

Additionally, increased spending for national security, particularly the $1 billion-a-week being spent in post-war Iraq, coupled with the tax cuts, are driving the federal deficit projection to a record $480 billion next fiscal year.

"The economy is twice as important as any foreign policy question," said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas.

Also, a pair of tangential events of the past month - the blackout and the soaring price of gasoline - have complicated the equation, he said.

Bush conferred with his economic advisers at his ranch this month and all but ruled out more tax cuts, which have drawn the ire of Democrats who charge they favor the wealthy.

"We need a new economic policy," said Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, one of the nine Democrats seeking the White House. "The misguided tax cuts for the wealthiest are not working."

Abroad, Bush's most pressing challenge remains the post-war stability of Iraq, its continuing dangers and rising costs.

Vowing no retreat, the president is under increasing public pressure - and from Republicans and Democrats in Congress - to bolster U.S. forces in Iraq to better secure the country and to develop a longer-term exit strategy.

"The composition of the forces is probably going to have to change, and I believe the numbers of people are going to have to be enlarged," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, told reporters after a visit to Baghdad during the congressional recess. "I also believe that we're going to have to spend a lot more money, and we're going to have to increase the size of our military."

The White House has acknowledged the need for more money for Iraq but is still contemplating the amount of a new request and its timing.

The administration is also considering seeking a new resolution of international support from the United Nations Security Council that could encourage the deployment of more international forces in Iraq.

Timing is again an issue. But the urgency of restoring stability to Iraq is pushing administration decisions ahead of the president's planned appearance before the U.N. General Assembly late next month.

Also, what had been a promising meeting in Beijing of North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China turned sour Thursday with a reported new threat from North Korea to begin testing the nuclear weapons that it says it has been building.

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