AS THE TWO-MONTH anniversary of the World Trade Center attack approaches, the Bush administration faces rougher going on three key fronts - domestic politics, economic and homeland security, and the war itself.
Politics. Though the commander-in-chief's personal approval rating remains around 90 percent, Democrats are poised to pick up two governorships, in moderate New Jersey and Virginia, as well as the mayor of New York. These contests are being decided by local issues. In both governor's races, the Republican is in trouble for having run too far to the right.
If the Democrats do make these gains, pragmatic Republican strategists will caution the president to distance himself from the party's right wing, which has pretty much called the tune on everything from tax policy to privatization to religious involvement in public services. This will fracture the GOP.
Despite Bush's narrow win in the Electoral College, even before Sept. 11 public opinion was more sympathetic to the Democratic position on a broad range of domestic issues. Since then, public solutions have come emphatically back into fashion.
The Home Front. Electoral gains in local and state elections would also embolden Democrats in Congress. The Republican congressional leadership has gotten a near-universal bad press for what political reformer Fred Werthheimer calls ''the War Profiteering Act of 2001.'' Even the resolutely supply-side Wall Street Journal editorial page has criticized corporate America for a shameless raid on the Treasury at a time when other Americans are making sacrifices.
The so-called stimulus package is now hung up in the Senate, where the Democratic leadership is refusing to eat the Republican program of retroactive tax rebates for corporations, permanent cuts in corporations, and other perks for very wealthy individuals. Last week, President Bush grandly gave Congress a deadline to act. But what is he going to do - hold his breath until he turns blue?
No serious economist thinks this bill will actually stimulate the economy. If Bush wants to avoid a serious recession, he should throw his support behind public spending measures that the economy needs both for stimulus and to provide better public health and civil defense.
On this front, too, the president is vulnerable. Although the Senate unanimously passed a bill to federalize airport security, House Republican leaders are antigovernment and have political and financial ties to the private security firms that left airports vulnerable.
After a couple of months of rally-'round-the president, commentators are beginning to say impolite things. The administration bungled the initial response to the anthrax attacks. It is sending absurd mixed signals about public safety, with Attorney General Ashcroft scaring the public silly the same day the president ostentatiously attends the World Series.
Officials like Ashcroft, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, and the new civil defense czar, Tom Ridge, may have been competent GOP governors, but they are evidently out of their depth in a serious national crisis.
Bureaucratic turf wars among the FBI, CIA, INS, and local law enforcement continue to hobble the homeland security effort. As the war and the domestic anxiety drag on, the president's own leadership becomes fair game for criticism and his political vulnerability will only deepen.
The War. The administration now faces its roughest sledding in the one area where the president has enjoyed broad public support, the war itself. The Taliban were supposed to be easily displaced in a short and fierce campaign. World public opinion was expected to line up behind America. But our sole resolute ally is Great Britain, and recent polls show that in much of Western Europe, a majority of people now favor a bombing pause.
In the Muslim world, the administration faces several conundrums. If we undertake policies intended to mollify Muslim public opinion, like pressing Israel harder for a settlement - a policy that makes sense in its own right - we risk vindicating the work of terrorists. If we press nominal allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to be tougher on their own domestic radicals, we risk destabilizing these regimes. And if we prosecute the war with the force necessary to truly defeat the Taliban, let alone take it to Baghdad, we risk further alienating world public opinion, not just in the Arab street, but in the streets of London, Paris, and Berlin.
It is an awful time, with awful choices. And as much as Americans want to believe that the callow George W. Bush has grown into a real leader, it will soon become permissible to declare in public that he is no Lincoln or Roosevelt.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company