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Bush Re-Election Prospects Hinge on Iraq, Economy - 2003-01-31

President Bush's re-election prospects in 2004 will likely hinge on the two issues he focused on in his State of the Union address this week, Iraq and the sluggish U.S. economy.

While much of the news coverage on the president's speech focused on Iraq, Mr. Bush actually spent the first half of his address talking about domestic issues, especially his plans to revive the U.S. economy. "Our first goal is clear: We must have an economy that grows fast enough to employ every man and woman who seeks a job," he said.

The fact that the president dealt with the economy before Iraq in his speech came as no surprise to American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman. "He remembers what happened to his father. [The first President Bush] was a big hero after the 1991 Gulf War, then the economy went south [deteriorated], and his father lost his bid for re-election," he said. "No American president has ever been re-elected during an election-year recession. George [W.] Bush desperately wants to avoid that. It is still what Bill Clinton said in 1992: It's the economy, stupid."

The president is proposing more tax cuts to fuel economic growth. Opposition Democrats, like Congressman Pete Stark of California, are vowing to fight his proposals in Congress. "I wish, I could say that the president had presented us a plan that would address the problems of the economy, but he has not," he said. "He mostly puts money into the hands of those who don't need it, and I think, we should have a plan that gets people spending immediately."

Many economic and political experts believe that uncertainty over a possible war with Iraq is causing Americans to hold back on spending and investment, delaying prospects for economic recovery.

Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in California, said "but in the short run, actually, a war might have hurtful economic effects. Certainly, the stock market dives every time there are war jitters [worries], which tends to indicate that the financial community believes that war is not necessarily good for the economy."

University of Virginia analyst Larry Sabato also believes that the issues of Iraq and the economy are intertwined. He said there is a growing sense in Washington that the economy cannot even begin to turnaround, until the situation with Iraq has been resolved. "This has gone from a lousy [stock] market to a disastrous market, and it is not going to improve, until the war is over, and only if it is over in an American victory, and the victory is achieved quickly," he said. "That is how serious the situation is."

Public opinion polls taken after the speech suggest that the president may have a tougher time winning supporters for his economic program than his stand on Iraq. A Gallup poll found that, before the speech, 46-percent of those surveyed approved of the president's economic plan. That figure only rose to 49-percent after the speech.