WASHINGTON -- Still energized by the capture of Saddam Hussein and signs of an economic rebound, President Bush begins the 10-month countdown to Election Day with the nation under a high terror alert and his job performance under criticism from Democrats who want to sit in the Oval Office.
The U.S. economy is gaining traction, but job growth still lags. U.S. troops pulled Saddam out of a dirt hole in Iraq last month, but Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, remains in hiding.
Congress passed Medicare reform legislation, just as Bush promised, yet the debate over details of the prescription drug benefit for seniors has yet to play out. And Democratic analysts say there's a political fight on the horizon about whether Bush's No Child Left Behind education initiative has improved schools.
Faced with the first case of mad cow disease in the United States two days before Christmas, the administration acted quickly in an effort to dissipate public fears. It banned further use of infirm cattle in meat products for human consumption and required new slaughtering practices at packinghouses. Still, more than 30 countries have banned U.S. beef products and the possible economic fallout from the case remains uncertain.
Good marks on economy
Although the nation has lost 2.8 million jobs since Bush took office, Bush is getting good marks on the economy as consumer confidence has risen to its highest levels since early 2002. Economic growth increased from an annual rate of 2 percent in the first quarter of 2003 to 8.2 percent in the third quarter and the Federal Reserve has indicated it's not inclined to raise key interest rates anytime in the near future.
Bush's overall job approval rating hovers around 60 percent. Analysts agree his biggest political challenges are sustaining job growth, turning Iraq over to the Iraqis and gaining ground on terrorists around the globe, a tough sell when America is under a code orange alert.
"He's got to continually show progress in Iraq because that removes the biggest possibility for hurting him on national security issues," said presidential scholar Charles Jones, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "On the domestic side, it's all the economy."
Iraq is the biggest of Bush's foreign policy challenges. While the administration seeks to halt the U.S. death toll, which exceeds 400, Bush must help decide the forum for former President Saddam's war crimes trial and persuade other nations to erase massive Iraqi debt incurred by the ousted regime. There's also transferring sovereignty to a new Iraqi government, now scheduled for June.
In postwar Afghanistan, leaders have approved a new constitution, but recalcitrant remnants of the deposed Taliban militia and private armies of dissident warlords still roam the country and threaten to spoil elections scheduled this year.
Bush is keeping an eye on Syria, trying to convince it to close its border with Iraq to keep out weapons and anti-American fighters. He's trying to nudge Iran toward democracy, and he's weighing whether to lift economic sanctions from Libya.
The president continues to look for ways to help end the chronic conflicts between the Israelis and Palestinians, although those prospects presently look bleak. Also high on the administration's to-do list is restarting six-nation talks with North Korea.
But the biggest potential land mine Bush faces as he seeks re-election is another terrorist attack, says James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration. Bush would suffer politically if an attack occurred and it was blamed on the invasion of Iraq, a breach in homeland security or a lack of progress in the war on terrorism, he said.
"The second-biggest land mine is a big nuclear crisis with North Korea," said Steinberg. "If they do a nuclear test or something, our hand is forced to decide whether we're just going to accept North Korea as a nuclear state or whether we're going to have to do something about it."
James Phillips, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said issues in Iraq will continue to dominate, but the overarching problem is proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
"It's known that al-Qaida and bin Laden himself has been trying to get ahold of weapons of mass destruction -- so there is a possibility of an al-Qaida attack using some kind of biological or chemical weapon or maybe a dirty bomb."
At home, one of Bush's first jobs this year is to deliver his third State of the Union address after Congress reconvenes Jan. 20.
Back to space
Space program insiders speculate that Bush could announce a grand, new space plan during the speech. An interagency task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney has been eyeing options since summer, but the White House has sidestepped questions about any new ventures to the moon or Mars.
The 2004 session of Congress could prove raucous. Bush says he plans to push for an energy bill and several of his judicial nominees now stalled in the Senate. An attempt may be made to make the 2001 tax cuts permanent, and the idea of changing Social Security to allow young workers to invest some of their contributions may get some lip service.
"I don't think Congress will bite on this," said former Rep. Bill Frenzel, a Minnesota Republican now at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution think tank. "They've done Medicare. The majority thinks they look good on taking care of the old folks, and they'd just as soon not disturb that reputation prior to November."