Bush's big chance to ride record wave of popularity

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The Independent US

Backed by the strongest ratings of any US president in memory, George Bush went into his first State of the Union speech last night vowing to end the current economic recession but warning Americans that the war against terrorism was still only in its early stages.

On the eve of the greatest set-piece occasion in the Washington political calendar, Mr Bush was given a boost by two separate polls showing that his public approval was running at more than 80 per cent. Though that figure is slightly lower than the record of 92 per cent in October, a month after the terrorist attacks, no president has ridden so long on such a powerful a wave of popularity.

The effects are rippling through national politics, transforming the outlook for autumn's mid-term congressional elections. Before 11 September, the Democrats looked well placed to strengthen their control of the Senate, and capture the six seats needed to win back the House of Representatives for the first time since 1994.

Mr Bush's coat-tails, however, have changed all these calculations. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that voters across the country favoured Republican over Democratic candidates by a margin of 50 to 43 per cent, the Republicans' biggest such lead in two decades. On a host of issues where the Democrats would normally dominate, from the economy to education, voters currently prefer the Republican policies.

As shown by the experience of George Bush Snr – who lost the 1992 election despite enjoying 80 per cent-plus ratings after the Gulf War barely 18 months earlier – stratospheric popularity can prove ephemeral. The son, however, is unlikely to make the war-victor father's mistake in the country's previous recession, of seeming indifferent to the economic worries of ordinary voters.

President Bush is putting the recession right at the top of his agenda and immediately after the speech he will travel across the country, to press the case for his tax-cutting economic stimulus package, which is currently stalled by party infighting on Capitol Hill. Last night, he was expected to link his two main themes, arguing that the successful prosecution of the anti-terror campaign was essential to restoring the sense of security that was vital if the national economy was to recover. Mr Bush also argues that the combination of a national emergency and a recession justifies the return to budget deficits, which are likely to persist for several years.

A prime contributor to the deficit will be the $48bn (£34bn) increase Mr Bush is seeking for the Pentagon budget in 2003 (a sum almost 50 per cent as much again as Britain's entire annual spending on defence) as well as the money required to bolster homeland security.

The result is a paradox – a conservative Republican President who came to office vowing to cut government down to size backing an expansion of the role of government. Aides were expecting Mr Bush to call for an overall 9 per cent increase in federal spending next year.

Watched from the House chamber's VIP gallery by Afghanistan's visiting leader, Hamid Karzai, Mr Bush was expected to warn that up to 100,000 people had passed through the terrorist training camps in that country, and that for this reason – and despite the destruction of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida's Afghan network – terrorism remained a continuing, global threat to the US. It is also a clear signal that the US is prepared to carry its offensive into other countries suspected of harbouring terrorists.

The towering popularity of the President leaves the Democrats walking an awkward and very fine line, criticising his domestic policies, especially on the economy, while leaving no impression that they are in any way undermining the fight against terrorism. The dilemma has been clearest over President Bush's tax proposals, with some Democrats calling for the tax cuts to be halted in the name of fiscal responsibility. Others, however, argue for additional measures, but ones that are focussed on the poorer segments of the population instead of corporate interests.

The Enron scandal thus offers a chink of vulnerability. Voters see it as proof that the current administration and big business are too close.

Though the Washington Post/ABC poll shows that a majority believes the Bush team acted properly in its dealings with the failed energy group, almost three-quarters – 70 per cent – say that details of its dealings with Enron officials should be made public.

But Mr Bush has backed his Vice-President in refusing to hand over to a congressional investigative agency lists of participants in meetings of the energy task force chaired last year by Dick Cheney. Critics say that, in return for its lavish donations to the Republican Party and the Bush presidential campaign, Enron had undue influence in the formulation of that energy policy.

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