Risks to Bush of foreign focus

It feeds a perception that he's not doing enough on economy, healthcare.

More than two months after President Bush declared victory in Iraq, the pull of international affairs is showing signs of becoming a drag on his tenure, opening him up to new attacks on the foreign-policy front and overshadowing his achievements at home.

In many ways, the postwar phase in Iraq is proving more difficult than the conflict itself: The Bush administration may wind up committing more troops in an effort to stabilize the country, even as it faces growing criticism of its original justification for war, after admitting this week that the president's State of the Union claim that Iraq had obtained nuclear materials was based on flawed information.

Mr. Bush is also grappling with a range of other challenges abroad, from nation-building in Afghanistan to the threat posed by weapons programs in Iran and North Korea to the civil war in Liberia.

At the same time, Bush's global focus may be eclipsing his efforts on the domestic front. Although the president has pushed major tax-cut and Medicare-reform bills through Congress in recent months, polls show Americans are growing dissatisfied with his efforts on the economy and healthcare.

HISTORIANS note that all presidents struggle to balance foreign and domestic affairs. But that balance is often harder for those involved in major wars, since the conflict almost always becomes the defining aspect of their tenure. And while a successful war is typically a source of political strength, the aftermath can prove rockier for many presidents, as they face a public impatient with commitments abroad and demanding more attention at home.

"Bush's presidency is not going to be known for anything he does domestically," says Douglas Brinkley, a historian at the Eisenhower Center for American Studies in New Orleans. "Historically, it's going to be known for 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq. But when running for reelection, as his father well knows, you have to start trying to convince people that you're engaged in economic matters."

The difficulties chief executives often encounter in the wake of war can be measured by the fact that no US president has successfully served another full term in office after leading the country through a major conflict. From James Madison to Harry Truman to George H. W. Bush, most wartime presidents have either lost reelection bids or chosen not to run again (the few who have been successful, such as Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, saw their terms cut short by illness or assassination).

"The notion that being commander in chief at a time of peril is some sort of rubber stamp to getting reelected is nonsense," says Mr. Brinkley.

Given the track record of some of his wartime predecessors, Bush's overall standing remains relatively strong. According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, the president's approval rating is a solid 60 percent, though it has dropped 14 points since the fall of Baghdad.

But the poll also found that 62 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the president's efforts on the economy, while 72 percent think he is not doing enough on healthcare.

Although Bush has taken a number of domestic trips in recent weeks to promote his tax cut and Medicare reform plans, his message has largely been overshadowed by developments abroad that are continuing to dominate headlines, say analysts.

"Iraq's obviously turning into something less of a positive than it was a month ago," says Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Report. "But it also just seems to be taking so much time and attention away from this administration. When Bush goes on the road to promote the tax cuts or Medicare [reform], inevitably that news is overtaken by developments out of Iraq and now Liberia."

THIS expanding slate of international activity has given Democrats new avenues for attack: Presidential candidates are stepping up criticism of the president's foreign-policy agenda as both a dangerous overextension of US forces and a drain on resources.

"As we get increasingly involved unilaterally, what's the cost here at home domestically?" said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake at a recent Monitor breakfast. "One of the stronger messages for Democrats is: We're planning to rebuild 25,000 schools in Iraq, but we cut school construction money in the budget for the United States."

Still, Bush may be in a stronger position than most postwar presidents because, while the war in Iraq may be over, the war against terror continues, and the public may be willing to continue to expend resources abroad to combat it.

"There's no question that a big part of the president's image is Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism," said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster at the Monitor breakfast. While it's impossible to predict the effect of the Iraq war "if there is a drip, drip, drip of casualties over a long period of time," he said, ultimately the public also believes "you have to get the terrorists before they get you."

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