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Gary Younge
Bush needs his next fix

"I suggest to you it's a hit the same way that crack is," she said. "And it doesn't last long." A year later Bush was voted out of office.

Thirteen years on, yet another President Bush is on a high from yet another war in the Gulf. For a moment last week, as he appeared to be heading for just one more quick fix in Syria, it looked like addiction might have got the better of him.

But as the delirium wears off, so sobriety is kicking in. Bush needs to get re-elected. As long as he was demonstrating military strength abroad his political weakness at home was well hidden. His failures were wrapped in the flag and the potential to debate them buried with each slain American soldier.

Now the nation has seen General Tommy Franks sit at the dinner table in Saddam Hussein's former palace and carve Iraq up into bite-size Bantustans, its attention will quickly move on to more immediate concerns. Since Bush came to power, two million jobs have been lost and the Dow has lost almost a quarter of its value. As the commander-in-chief of a recently victorious army, he may be popular. But as the president of a nation in an economic downturn, he is as at least as vulnerable as his father was at this stage in his presidency.

His talent for destroying regimes that his father once armed and bankrolled has been proven. His ability to rebuild the American economy has, like his father's before him, been found wanting. From now on they will want Bush to talk less about homeland security and more about job security.

Bush realises this, which is why he has sent 25 officials to 40 cities in 26 states over the next two weeks to push his tax-cut strategy. The Democrats know it too, which is presumably why they are queuing around the block to challenge him for the presidency.

But at the moment the 2004 presidential election looks as though it could shape up to look a little like the recently released film, Head of State, starring Chris Rock. Rock's character is standing for the White House as a populist candidate, worried about the lot of the working poor.

"How many of you work two jobs to have just enough money to be broke?" he asks one crowd. His campaign slogan is: "That ain't right." His opponent's rallying-cry is: "God Bless America, and no place else." Rock's support soars, and there are no prizes for guessing who Bush might be in this cinematic metaphor.

At this point it is difficult to see what he will have to show for his four years in office come November next year, apart from two wars and the bills for them.

His domestic agenda has all but collapsed due to his inability to convince his own side. The Republican-controlled Congress is set to halve his much-vaunted tax-cut plan, the cornerstone of his economic stimulus package, and has already thrown out his attempt to open up Alaska's wilderness to more oil drilling.

Congressional representatives have opposed the plans because they need to be elected as well. The economy remains the number one priority for voters, yet according to the polls, Bush's tax-cutting plan is unpopular. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that most Americans think Congress should not pass it, while a poll by the Associated Press showed 60% of Americans saying this is not the time for tax cuts.

A nd what is bad on a national scale is completely dire at a local and state level. While Bush can run up a huge deficit, many states and cities have to balance their budgets, which has left them with the worse budget crisis since the second world war.

Across the country, where much jurisdiction is local, fire stations, zoos and after-school clubs are being shut down; teachers, police and social workers are being fired, prison inmates released and local taxes hiked. In seven states, many schools are on a four-day week. Some towns in Oregon have no police protection for some of the day. And Nevada is facing the steepest tax increase in its history.

Considering the devolution of power that gives states and cities plenty of autonomy, this cannot be blamed on Bush - although some money he pledged for education and homeland security has not been forthcoming and pleas to the White House to alleviate the pain have been rebuffed. But it does add to the general sense of malaise, which makes a man trying to get elected on a programme of foreign wars and tax cuts appear out of touch.

On the face of it, this sounds like little more than wishful thinking. Bush's approval ratings are the strongest they have been for a year. With 18 months to go before the next election, more than half the country say they will vote for him regardless of who his opponent is, and the voters trust him more on the economy than they do the Democrats - although not by much.

There are no obvious, credible challengers from within the Republican party. Bush is an effective campaigner - his folksy ways make Europeans think he's stupid and many Americans think he's down-to-earth. And his coffers are fit to burst, with talk of him raising twice as much money as he did last time.

But then his father was even more popular in 1991 - when few outside of Arkansas had ever heard of Bill Clinton - than Bush Jr is now. His son knows better than most that presidents on a roll can fall backwards just as easily as forwards. And with the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, there is nobody for him to blame.

Bush is a different animal from his father and three things could stop history repeating itself. The first is the Democrats. The prospect of getting rid of Bush will energise many Democrats but the nine who have put themselves forward so far have either failed to capture the popular imagination or simply have little hope of getting elected. The front-runner in the polls, John Kerry, has flip-flopped on the war and comes across as uptight. The front-runner in the money-raising stakes, John Edwards, is too rightwing and inexperienced. There is not one of them who is likely to win who could bellow: "That ain't right", even if they wanted to.

Second, God forbid, another terrorist attack, which will once again rally the nation around its leader in a time of crisis. And third, if he falls off the wagon, is overwhelmed by the craving, and goes off in search of another war.

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