WASHINGTON — The last few weeks have not exactly offered a font of good news for the Bush administration. North Korea has the Bomb and is stamping its feet demanding attention. The terrorist threat level is orange. Congress isn't enamored with the president's tax-cut plan. The UN Security Council seems largely unmoved on Iraq, despite Colin Powell's evidentiary hearing in New York last week. And the economy is moving more slowly than the Beltway at rush hour.
Even the good news isn't that good. Last week the Department of Labor announced that the unemployment rate had fallen to 5.7 percent in January. But economists quickly pointed out that the reason there were fewer layoffs after the holidays is that there were fewer hires during them.
The really bad news, however, is that this may be as good as it gets for a while for this administration. A series of problems, some of the administration's own making, are lining up outside the door of the Oval Office, and each is going to demand the president's attention. And how he handles them will likely determine whether he remains in office for an additional four years.
First and foremost, there's the prospect of war with Iraq. If it happens, and the drift toward it seems almost unstoppable at this point, lives will be lost and reciprocal terrorist attacks may follow. And even if everything goes to plan and it ends swiftly in the US's favor, the problems in Iraq will have just begun. Democracies don't bloom overnight, particularly in a factionalized nation with no real democratic tradition. Any victory, however complete, will lead to years of difficult work.
The president may have little choice on this score. If the case Mr. Powell laid out was true and accurate, then something must be done in Iraq sooner or later. But it doesn't make the aftereffects any easier.
Mr. Bush's larger problems, though, may come domestically. A few things tend to happen at home even when wars are half a world away.
First, the economy tends to take a slight dip. The president's father knows this well. In 1991, the year of the Gulf War, the nation's gross domestic product dipped half a percent in constant dollars. For a nation already trying to get its sluggish economy moving, this could be very painful. Fuel prices, those magical X-factors that affect the cost of everything from toothpaste to hamburgers, will likely rise. The stock markets, which hate uncertainty, will likely continue their stumbling.
Second, the public starts to turn its eyes homeward and take stock. And here is where Bush has serious issues to address.
The fact of the matter is that this president never had much of a domestic agenda beyond the tax cut he proposed in his campaign. Bush's education proposals have been criticized by school administrators, who may like them in theory but whose districts lack the money to make serious improvements. His prescription-drug program for seniors has received at best a lukewarm reception on Capitol Hill.
He is vulnerable on environmental issues, where his biggest initiative is funding to make hydrogen-powered cars a reality someday.
Meanwhile, the states worry about falling revenues and warn they may have to raise taxes even as the president offers them little aid and proposes another round of federal tax cuts. Those cuts have confused even some of the GOP faithful, who think the plan makes the president and the party appear that they are helping the rich at the expense of everyone else. Even the economists the president brought in to support his plan say it probably doesn't do much to stimulate the economy and is more about restructuring the code. And, of course, under all of this is the promise of rising deficits - even the White House estimates a shortfall of more than $300 billion, and that is without figuring in the cost of any war.
Bush still has time to do something about all of this, of course, but he's shown no interest in changing direction. In his first two years in the White House and his previous time in the governor's mansion in Texas, Bush has developed a kind of hard-headed resolve. He pushes, and if the other side doesn't give, he pushes more.
This approach has, in fact, won him admirers who claim he is being"Reaganesque" in his handling of the office. There are, however, a few key differences between Ronald Reagan and the Oval Office's current occupant. Mr. Reagan, the former actor, knew how to work and control the crowd. He specialized in soaring rhetoric. He knew how to appear larger than life. Bush is Joe President. He knows larger than life is out of his range and aims his image at being a regular guy. This approach works well in crisis when people want a leader to stand behind, but not so well when people are generally unhappy and need someone to lead them.
And though times have been bad for the past few months, if this president doesn't make some changes he may someday look back on this time as the good old days.
Editor's note: Dante Chinni, a regular Monitor contributor since 1999, today begins a political column that will appear on the second and fourth Tuesday of the month. Mr. Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in such other publications as The Washington Post Magazine, The New Republic, and The Economist. He writes on topics ranging from the media to politics to culture and the connections among them, and strives to look beyond the back-and-forth of debate and examine the underlying ideas with color and common sense.