Monday, January 01, 2001

People, issues to watch in 2001

Can Bush cure rancor in Capitol?

By Bruce Holtgren
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Welcome to the third millennium. We likely won't have to wait long to get a good sense of how things will go in its first year, 2001.

        The Bush administration takes over in Washington Jan. 20. At the same time, a nearly equally divided new Congress also will begin work. How well George W. Bush is able to govern should become apparent within his first few weeks in office.

        Having won among the most harrowingly close presidential elections in history, the new president faces an obvious and difficult challenge in leading a politically divided country.

        The president-elect sounded strong themes of bipartisan harmony in his acceptance speech in Austin, Texas, last month. Mr. Bush's record as a popular governor of Texas indeed reflects political partnership. Whether such goodwill carries over to the business of running the federal government should become evident within a few weeks.

        Will the new Congress and the White House work together to pass measures popular with both parties? Or will the partisan rancor that has marked Washington politics for years continue to hold sway?

        Both Republicans and Democrats say they're in favor of passing laws allowing Medicare to pay for prescription drugs, reforming public education, and providing some level of tax relief for Americans. These are among measures that should become law by summer if our leaders are as chummy as they say they can be.

        But if political sparks fly early, look for the same over the next two years. The focus will be on the 2002 elections, when both parties will be battling to win control of the evenly split Senate and almost evenly divided House.

Whither the economy?
               A huge unknown is the U.S. economy, which seems increasingly to be at a turning point. America has enjoyed a record decade-long economic expansion, but lately there have been noises of a growth slowdown, maybe even recession. Stock markets are sluggish, retail sales less than spectacular, broad economic indicators iffy. Energy costs are rising.

        Will Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan lower interest rates? Most analysts expect so — but will that spur continued prosperity?

        A booming economy makes many things much easier. Federal, state and local governments have much more leeway in determining how to spend taxpayers' dollars. Low unemployment and inflation keep consumers happy, allowing room to spend, save and invest. Businesses make enough money to expand and innovate.

        But if the economy heads into rough waters, all of the happy challenges that good times offer give way to problems that can be intractable. The high interest rates, high inflation and high unemployment of the late 1970s and early 1980s are among such painful times most Americanscan remember.

        Regardless of how the economy goes, it will be telling to see how Mr. Bush makes Americans feel about America. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan handled this challenge superbly, in starkly different economic climates.

The world out there
               Americans are famous for disdaining foreign policy as a topic of conversation. Yet many things that happen elsewhere, most of them out of the control of the United States, can affect what happens at home.

        Key leaders of the Middle East, for example, are on the verge of giving up on the “peace process” between Israel and its Arab neighbors. If violence continues in Israel and its occupied territories, the peace that the United States has so painstakingly worked toward for more than 20 years could unravel completely.

        Watch, especially, the outcome of the Feb. 6 elections in Israel. Crucial will be whether the new government has a strong mandate for seeking peace, is hostile to continuing negotiations, or lacks enough support to pursue either strategy.

        If the Mideast continues to deteriorate, look for anything from a new anti-Western Arab oil boycott to all- out war.

        In the decade since the Berlin Wall came down, democracy has been gaining around the world. Most recently, new footholds of freedom have appeared as near as Mexico and as far away as Yugoslavia.

        Even North Korea, long among the most hostile nations to the concepts of peace and freedom, is beginning to at least talk — seriously, at last — about opening up to the West.

        In traditionally repressive regimes, such as China and Russia, watch to see if the trend toward more freedom continues, or if it continues to be the exception rather than the rule.

        As always, loose cannons, ranging from heads of state, such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein, to terrorist organizations are sure to test the new leadership of the world's sole superpower.

        Watch for how America responds to these inevitable provocations from abroad — and be prepared for American citizens to be directly involved, as in last year's bombing of the USS Cole.

Expect the unexpected
               Finally, be sure not to take any specific forecasts too seriously. The one certainty that we know from experience is that predictions are hazardous.

        No one can offer an analysis of any upcoming year without one bit of implicit advice: Hope for the best, and don't be surprised when something surprising happens.

        Bruce Holtgren is an Enquirer copy editor. E-mail him at

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