- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush, rested and ready after nearly a month at his ranch, returns to work at the White House today with high support from Americans for the war in Iraq, a reviving national economy and a burgeoning bank account for his 2004 re-election campaign.

A heavy workload awaits Mr. Bush. Congress will take up his Medicare proposal and energy package, as well as an expected request for billions of dollars to establish stability and security in Iraq. The president will be juggling these issues while campaigning for re-election.

“The challenge is enormous,” said Kenneth Weinstein, vice president of the Hudson Institute, a policy think tank. “Between the situation in Iraq, the situation in the Middle East, the budget, it’s certainly overwhelming.”

Also awaiting Mr. Bush is an energized Democratic Party eager to spotlight the high unemployment rate, the rising costs of keeping troops in Iraq and an uncertain Medicare prescription drug bill in Congress. Congressional Democrats also are expected to push for increasing the minimum wage and government payments to low-income families with children.

Mr. Bush also faces criticism from former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democratic presidential hopeful. Mr. Dean has maintained a position as his party’s top fund-raiser by nabbing more than $1 million from a three-day, 10-city tour that included the president’s home state of Texas.

Mr. Bush also is preparing for two overseas trips later this year — one to Thailand, the Philippines and likely Australia, and the other to England, which is expected to include talks on Iraq with Prime Minister Tony Blair.

His travel schedule at home will be frenetic. With presidential primaries and caucuses four months away and a general election a little more than a year from now, the president will be raising money for his campaign and bolstering the profiles of lawmakers to help keep Republicans in control of the House and Senate.

“He will have a very active schedule when he gets back,” said Suzy DeFrancis, deputy director of the White House communications office. One of the president’s primary objectives, she said, is to take his message of economic and homeland security directly to Americans.

The president, she said, believes his message is being filtered and distorted by mainstream news outlets.

Despite reports last week about “growing doubts” over continued casualties in Iraq and Democrats’ calls to either increase troop deployments or begin pulling out, polls found Americans maintained strong support for the U.S. effort.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed that 63 percent of Americans said the Iraq war was worth waging. Nearly 60 percent said they approved of Mr. Bush’s overall job performance and 57 percent said they approved of his handling of Iraq.

Visiting St. Louis last week, Mr. Bush said the United States was taking on terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan “so our people will not have to confront terrorist violence in New York or St. Louis or Los Angeles.” He vowed “no retreat” as he asked Americans to be patient.

The administration denied news reports that it had changed strategy on Iraq.

“We need to continue to stay the course in Iraq,” Miss DeFrancis said. “There is no change of course on Iraq. The president’s policy will continue forward.”

Mr. Bush will travel to Kansas City, Mo., on Thursday to address the chamber of commerce and on Friday will visit the Langham Co., a warehousing business in Indianapolis. Both speeches will deal with the economy.

The Commerce Department, adding to a string of strong economic reports in recent weeks, said last week that the economy grew at a 3.1 percent annual rate over the last quarter and that growth more than doubled between the first and second quarters.

Thursday’s trip will be Mr. Bush’s 13th presidential visit to Missouri, a swing state in next year’s election and home of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a Democratic presidential hopeful.

Mr. Bush will be facing several contentious battles in Congress, including one over the Department of Veterans Affairs’ plans to close seven hospitals and change the services provided at dozens of others.

The proposal is drawing fierce opposition from lawmakers from both parties — and from veterans, a key Bush constituency.

The president and Congress are under pressure to address weaknesses in the nation’s power grid, emphasized dramatically by last month’s massive blackout in the Northeast, and to wrap up work on a compromise Medicare overhaul, including a more than $400 billion plan to provide a prescription drug benefit under Medicare.

Perhaps the most difficult battle the president faces is over funding for the U.S. effort to rebuild and stabilize Iraq. The administration is working on a supplemental budget request but has not given an amount.

“We don’t have the numbers at this point, and until we have responsible numbers we’re not going to go to Congress,” Bush spokeswoman Claire Buchan said last week.

Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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