President Bush has directed chief of staff Andrew Card and top political adviser Karl Rove to carefully construct his fall schedule to accomplish three distinct but interrelated objectives: (1) build decisive congressional and international support for "regime change" in Iraq; (2) ensure passage of the entire federal budget and avoid a "train wreck"; and (3) recapture GOP control of the U.S. Senate while expanding control of the House.
IRAQ TeamBush kicked off its three-pronged fall campaign on Sept. 4 with a presidential briefing on Iraq with top congressional leaders, armed with fresh internal and public polls showing strong public support for war with Iraq. The Los Angeles Times found that a remarkable 64 percent of all Americans-and 54 percent of Democrats-say they will support the president if he orders military action against Saddam Hussein. Moreover, 71 percent of those would remain supportive "even if that action resulted in substantial U.S. casualties." Six in 10 believe Saddam Hussein "is a threat to the United States" and nearly eight in 10 believe Saddam has supported al-Qaeda terrorism. The White House moved quickly to call for an up-or-down vote before the November elections on support for military action.
Knowing that two-thirds of Americans, according to that same Times poll, say that the United States should take military action against Iraq "only" if it has the support of the "international community," Mr. Bush moved quickly to shore up support among foreign leaders. He met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David, set up meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Jacques Chirac, and worked on his speech to the UN General Assembly scheduled for Sept. 12. (Mr. Bush will continue his global coalition building in a White House meeting with Czech President Vaclav Havel on Sept. 18. He hosts Chinese President Jiang Zemin at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on Oct. 25. He heads to an Asian-Pacific economic summit in Mexico just before Election Day, then heads to Europe for a NATO summit in mid-November.)
BUDGET The federal budget-not the overall economy-is President Bush's Achilles' heel this fall, and he must tread carefully. While 74 percent of Americans support Mr. Bush's handling of the war on terrorism, and 56 percent support his handling of the economy, only 48 percent approve of his handling of the budget (37 percent disapprove and 15 percent are undecided).
Democrat leaders Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Rep. Nita Lowey of New York are beginning to talk of a bipartisan budget summit after the elections. Their goal is to force the president to go where his father disastrously went in the buildup to the Gulf War in the fall of 1990, agreeing to massive domestic spending hikes along with tax increases that tipped an already-weak economy into recession.
The White House understands the dangers of a summit. But anxiety is rising among the president's economic advisers. They worry that Congress may not pass all 13 appropriations bills by the time the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Should Rep. Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle succeed in bogging down votes this fall, a dramatic budget showdown over domestic spending priorities could occur in the days and weeks before the midterm elections.
Top White House budget priorities: (1) securing its $369 billion defense budget request (the Senate just slashed that request by some $14 billion); (2) getting the full $37.7 billion budget for homeland security; (3) passing an energy bill that includes oil exploration amidst growing public fears of an oil slowdown or cutoff due to hostilities in the Persian Gulf.
ELECTIONS The president has already broken fund-raising records, vacuuming up $109 million this year, but with so much at stake he's not finished yet. Top priorities in September: Tennessee and New Jersey. President Bush heads to Nashville on Sept. 17 to help raise money for GOP Senate hopeful Lamar Alexander, while former President George H.W. Bush headlines a fundraiser for Mr. Alexander in Knoxville the next day. The president then heads to New Jersey for Senate candidate Douglas Forrester on Sept. 23. More campaign trips are being planned, but the schedule is growing tight due to war preparations.