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However much oxygen Enron has pumped into Democrats, it doesn't change the fact that Bush has the highest sustained approval ratings in memory--and a monumental set of tasks ahead of him. That explains why, after delivering his State of the Union speech Tuesday, he planned to hit the road for two days selling his proposals to the public. Many are sure to be popular: more money for defense, intelligence gathering, homeland security and border controls and more tools for police and fire fighters. If Bush has had to shelve his plans to reform Medicare and Social Security--money is tight, and the country is in no mood to experiment with retirement benefits--that's not an entirely unpleasant outcome. Those waters are treacherous, and many wondered why he ever thought about diving in.
Bush will try lots of little things to release the pressure building up in the Enron pipeline. He has indicated that he will sign the campaign-finance measure if it ever makes it to his desk. Aides indicated last week that he will also get behind efforts to strengthen the rules that require companies to disclose information about hidden liabilities. He will call on Congress to make sure that employees have ways to diversify their retirement savings so that other Enrons don't happen. And with unemployment rising, the former oilman is capping talk of tax cuts and boosting talk about jobs, jobs, jobs.
But the main valve Bush will open now is the one labeled "war." In that arena, the public has given him a free hand to spend whatever he wants, finish off al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, hunt down its cells around the world and build up U.S. military muscle. He is already moving into the second phase of the war, tracking terrorists in countries like the Philippines, Somalia and Sudan. Sitting at Camp David two weekends ago, he told his aides he believed that roughly 100,000 al-Qaeda-linked terrorists might still be at large around the world. "We're not going to stop short," he said.
All is fair in war and politics, but there are some battlefield tactics the combatants would rather not discuss. Democrats want to take away Bush's fatigues and drag him back to last year, to the days when his presidency lacked a clear purpose. The President wants to go in the opposite direction, wrapping the entire country--Democrats included--in a warm, unifying embrace, complete with new proposals to foster volunteerism and charity. Safe inside that hug of unity, he dares the Democrats to break the mood that faced down terrorism. A senior official predicted to TIME that voters who care about Enron and its White House ties will lose interest after the next big bombing raid. If Bush has his way, investigating the Administration's links to Enron or challenging his plans for mending the economy will seem as unpatriotic as questioning the choice of bombing targets in Tora Bora.
--With reporting by Cathy Booth Thomas/ Dallas and Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/ Washington