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Bush Strategy: Fight Terrorism, Repair Economy


In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Bush outlined his plans to fight a two-front war on terrorism abroad and economic recession at home. Opposition Democrats are signaling they are likely to be allies on the first objective, but more often adversaries on the second.

The president's advisers saw the speech as a golden political opportunity. An opening to take advantage of the strong public approval ratings for Mr. Bush's handling of the war on terrorism and extend that support to the administration's domestic agenda:

"I am a proud member of my party. Yet as we act to win the war, protect our people and create jobs in America, we must act first and foremost not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but as Americans," he said.

Political analysts say Mr. Bush is determined not to repeat the mistakes of his father, who failed to win a second term in the White House in 1992 despite high public approval ratings for his handling of the Persian Gulf War.

Norman Ornstein is a presidential scholar at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington. He says, "The main goal of the president right now is to take his strong approval [ratings], still up in the mid-80's, which is extraordinary, the political capital that flows from that and use it to sustain the public support for not just the war in its stage in Afghanistan, but what will come next," he said.

While the war on terrorism remains a major concern of the American public, opinion polls indicate that anxiety about the weakened U.S. economy has become an even bigger issue.

University of Maryland political analyst Ron Walters says that is why the president devoted nearly as much time to domestic issues in his speech as he did to the war on terrorism.

"The American people, 88 percent of them, have given him a favorable rating. But at the same time, about 70 percent of them feel that the economy is in bad shape. And so this speech had to split the difference between those two sentiments," he said.

Opposition Democrats say that while they support the president on the war, they do have fundamental differences with him on how to cure the nation's economic problems.

Congressman Richard Gephardt, the House Minority Leader and a likely presidential candidate in 2004, gave the official Democratic response to the president's address.

"I refuse to accept that while we stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the war, we should stand toe-to-toe on the economy. We need to find a way to respect each other, and trust each other, and work together to solve the long-term challenges America faces," he said.

But many analysts caution Democrats will have to be careful as to how and when they oppose the president, because of his popularity.

Once again, University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters. He said, "As a matter of fact, I would say that because many of the Republican [political] operatives are poised to use the war in the [congressional] campaigns that are coming up this year, the Democrats may well find themselves on the defensive if they strike a partisan tone. So they are choosing their fights very carefully and I think that to the extent that they are partisan, it is with respect to the economic issues rather than the war," he said.

The debate over domestic issues like taxes, job creation and health care is expected to heat up in the next few months as lawmakers prepare for congressional elections in November.

Historically, the party that controls the White House tends to lose congressional seats in midterm elections. But this year political analysts are hedging their bets, waiting to see if the president's popularity will last, and whether that will translate into Republican gains in the House and Senate.

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