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President Bush Ends Year Politically Strengthened - 2002-12-15


President Bush ends 2002 with enhanced political power at home and mixed support abroad. Dealing with the Iraqi threat and the hard fought campaign for control of the U.S. Congress topped the presidential agenda this year.

The tone was set early in 2002.

On January 29, President Bush went before an election year Congress and spoke of a threat half a world away. "Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror," he said.

Throughout the year, domestic politics and international concerns became intertwined as the president wove the dangers posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein into a series of campaign appearances across the country. "He is a man who said he wouldn't have weapons of mass destruction, but he has denied and deceived the world for 11 years," Mr. Bush said.

At each stop, he spoke of challenges abroad and at home as he appealed to voters to go to the polls and vote for members of his Republican party. "If you love freedom, then you have an obligation as a citizen of this country to participate in elections! If you believe in freedom, then you have a responsibility to maintain that democratic system!" Mr. Bush said.

The president put his prestige on the line campaigning almost full-time in the days leading up to the November election. Although he was not on the ballot, he was a constant presence in key states where a few votes might make the difference in a race for governor, senator, or congressman.

Larry Sabato is a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. He said the president's popularity made the difference enabling Republicans to win back the Senate and hold onto the House midway through his term in office.

"This was the George W. Bush midterm. The results in both the House and Senate were due primarily to his efforts - his efforts at fundraising, his traveling around the country peripatetically, and perhaps most of all his agenda which sold, both foreign policy and domestic," Mr. Sabato said.

Throughout the year, his public approval ratings at home remained high. Perhaps more than his agenda, his image captivated Americans. President Bush, like President Reagan before him, deliberately cultivates a cowboy image, somebody who is from the west, somebody who has a ranch in Texas," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at California's Claremont-McKenna College.

He notes the very image that resounds so well with the American people may be a source of skepticism and opposition abroad. "We Americans look at cowboys and we think of bravery, we think of honesty, we think of integrity. When people in other countries think of cowboys, however, it is a different image. They tend to think of rudeness and recklessness," Mr. Pitney said.

He said the challenge before the president in the new year is to maintain his support at home while increasing it abroad. He said there are some hopeful signs, that even though polls show negative views of the United States and the Bush administration are rising in some countries, the president made some inroads with foreign leaders in 2002.

"There is a dichotomy between the opinions of foreign leaders and what you might see in general public opinion polls. Because foreign leaders have had direct contact with President Bush and people who have had direct contact with President Bush quickly learn that his public image is only part of the story," Mr. Pitney said.

The president enters 2003 with enhanced political power, thanks to the election victory, and approval ratings at home topping 60 percent. He also faces the possibility of war with Iraq and the delicate task of convincing the world that the threat is real and so is the need for American action.