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Challenges For Bush State of Union Speech: Possible War, Doubts Over Economy - 2003-01-27


President Bush faces a daunting array of challenges, both international and domestic, as he prepares for his State of the Union Address Tuesday night.

The president faces the twin challenges of preparing the country for a possible war with Iraq and reassuring Americans that the flat economy will rebound.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says the State of the Union speech will give the president an opportunity to reverse some negative trends in public opinion polls. "First, the president's poll numbers have been slipping and there is a general perception that he is losing the fight on the economy and has not yet mobilized support domestically, or in many cases, internationally, on the potential war against Iraq," he said.

Recent polls indicate that a growing number of Americans want U.N. support for a military effort to disarm Saddam Hussein.

Norman Ornstein is a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington. He said Mr. Bush must continue to make the case as to why the United States may have to act alone in taking military action against Iraq.

"Can he take that plurality of Americans (in public opinion polls), well over 40 percent, who believe that we should move forward on Iraq, but only if we have support from other nations through the United Nations, and build a stronger and deeper level of support for his policy? These are challenges that he faces," Mr. Ornstein said.

Conservative Republicans remain strongly supportive of the president. Former defense department official Richard Perle argues that Mr. Bush should be aggressive in foreign policy even if it means antagonizing longtime allies and friends.

"And so some people have been surprised and dismayed that the United States is once again asserting a position of leadership in the world. This has come at some pain to some of our European allies in particular. The French and Germans, for example, who someone recently called the 'Axis of weasel,'" he said.

Many opposition Democrats take issue with that view. Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy warns that the president faces growing international hostility because of the way in which he is pursuing his foreign policy objectives.

"My criticism of the administration in foreign policy is that they have a foreign policy that appears to be based on, 'my way or the highway', or a 'chip on the shoulder' foreign policy," Mr. Kennedy said.

In addition to growing worries over Iraq, public opinion polls also suggest growing domestic discontent over the president's handling of the economy. Even conservative economic analysts like Kevin Hassett warn that the uncertainty over the situation with Iraq is becoming a major drag on the U.S. economy.

"If we do not resolve the Iraqi situation very soon, then this kind of ugly, in-between feeling that we have, we are not really in a recovery, we may be headed towards recession, is likely to endure," Mr. Hassett said.

The president's public approval ratings are down a bit from near-historic highs in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. But Mr. Bush still draws an approval rating of between 55 and 60 percent, which is generally considered strong for the midpoint of a presidential term.

Former President Ronald Reagan, for example, drew only a 37 percent approval rating at this point in his first term, but enjoyed a landslide re-election victory in 1984.

On the other hand, President Bush's father enjoyed a 62 percent approval rating at this point in his term in 1990, only to lose his re-election bid to Bill Clinton two years later.

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