Global, domestic hazards ahead

President Bush's 2003 agenda cluttered with unresolved issues from old year

Posted: Sunday, January 05, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Seldom has so much uncertainty been in the air, both domestically and internationally, presenting President Bush and the incoming GOP-led Congress with an abundance of unresolved crises.

An Iraq war decision looms. North Korea has embarked on an uncertain course of nuclear confrontation. Threats of terrorist attacks are a worry at home and abroad. A month-old general strike in Venezuela is rattling oil markets. Unfinished business remains in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

As Bush prepares to make public a tax cut and stimulus program this week, investors remain spooked by the stock markets' three-year dive, consumer confidence is shaky and corporate earnings uneven. Government surpluses are gone and deficits ballooning. State governments are strapped.

''Basically, we've got a mountain on our backs right now,'' said David Wyss, chief economist for Standard & Poor's in New York. ''This is all a huge weight on our economy.''

When Congress reconvenes this week, under GOP control in both chambers, the Senate will have a new majority leader: Bill Frist of Tennessee, recently chosen to replace embattled Trent Lott, R-Miss.

Likewise, the Bush administration has a new, untested -- and unconfirmed -- economic team. Just last month, Bush named John Snow, a railroad executive, as treasury secretary, and investment banker Stephen Friedman as director of the White House National Economic Council, ousting Paul O'Neill and Lawrence Lindsey, respectively, from those posts.

Bush also named William Donaldson, another investment banker, to succeed Harvey Pitt as chair of the Securities and Exchange Commis-sion. Pitt resigned under pressure amid a series of corporate accounting scandals.

Friedman's post does not require Senate confirmation, but the Treasury and SEC jobs do.

Bush's approval ratings continue to be high -- hovering in the 60s. Much of that is based on his national security performance and on personal attributes.

Right now, White House attention is most focused on Iraq, the continued war on terrorism and homeland security as Bush begins the second two years of his term.

''I'm going to continue doing the job the American people expect, which is to safeguard America and Americans,'' Bush told reporters late last week near the end of a two-week holiday break at his Texas ranch.

But the president also is expected to emphasize his domestic priorities -- highlighted with this week's economic policy address -- as he builds his case for re-election.

Bush is pressing for quick congressional action to restore expired emergency unemployment benefits. He will push for health care changes, easing prescription drug costs for the elderly, limiting ''frivolous'' lawsuits and making it easier for religious groups to get federal money for charitable programs.

Not since 1973-74 -- with an Arab oil embargo, U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and the Watergate scandal -- have ''so many challenges faced a president,'' GOP pollster Frank Luntz said.

''We've also got a spiritual crisis in the Catholic Church, a brewing economic crisis and a stock market meltdown,'' Luntz said. Despite a stock market rally at the outset of this year, Luntz said: ''Two words describe the political electorate today: insecure and anxious.''

Luntz said Bush is politically well-positioned to weather the crises and press a domestic agenda. ''But if there's war with Iraq, voters don't want 'compassionate conservatism,' they want focused leadership,'' Luntz said.

As the new year began, Democrats were struggling to get organized to challenge Bush -- both on unfinished domestic and national security issues.

''We still haven't captured Osama bin Laden. We haven't taken the war against terrorism to the most competent terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, which represent the greatest threat against the United States,'' said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a possible presidential contender.

International factors such as Iraq continue to be the biggest drag on the U.S. economy -- and it is doubtful anything Bush proposes in the way of economic stimulus will offset that, said economist Lawrence Chimerine, president of Radnor Consulting in Philadelphia.

''The domestic risks don't bother me as much,'' Chimerine said. ''I think things will fall into place -- provided we can avoid anything that sharply pushes up oil prices, or a scary war.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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