When George W. Bush moves into the White House next month, his most difficult task will be to rally a fractured electorate and Congress around his presidency and his agenda.
Even though domestic issues dominated his campaign, the 43rd president may find more consensus on foreign policy issues, including the Middle East, an area he may have no choice but to confront.
“When presidents needs to look presidential, they turn to foreign policy, because it is where they can act unilaterally,” said Lester Munson, spokesman for the House International Relations Committee.
Bush may want to leave foreign policy to others, but “he may not have the option in light of the tumultuous events in the Middle East,” said Howard Kohr, executive director of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Kohr recalled the elections of former President George Bush and of President Clinton, when people speculated that neither one would become very involved in foreign affairs.
But reacting to events in the Middle East, both ultimately became key foreign policy players. Bush led the country in the Gulf War in 1991, and Clinton became a major figure in the Middle East peace process.
George W. Bush, too, may be forced to take a proactive role, given the current situation in the region — an all-but failed peace process and a mounting death toll from the Palestinian uprising.
For Jewish groups focused on Israel and the Middle East, such as AIPAC, that focus would be welcome.
Others more involved with domestic concerns are strategizing how to get their issues on the agenda as Bush and a new, deeply divided Congress figure out a way to work together.
A new administration “doesn’t change our agenda; it might change our strategy,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council of Public Affairs.
Officials of the umbrella organization huddled Tuesday to debate which parts of their agenda could make it to the floor of the U.S. Congress, given the anticipated congressional gridlock.
In light of the anticipated gridlock on domestic issues, JCPA officials discussed focusing on foreign policy issues — including support and aid for Israel, traditionally a bipartisan issue, and anti-terrorism measures, Price said.
Still, JCPA and other Jewish groups here do not intend to abandon their issues, only perhaps reprioritize.
On the domestic front, Price said JCPA may focus on education issues, an area Bush has set as a priority. JCPA will seek more federal money for education programs and more help for failing schools.
United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of local federations and the central fund-raising and social services agency for the Jewish community, is also carefully studying its own agenda and attempting to match up what is most workable with a Bush administration.
There are issues that Jewish groups and Bush agree on, said Diana Aviv, UJC’s vice president of public policy.
Bush is sympathetic toward immigration reform, for example, and UJC would “be able to do business with him,” she said.
UJC has been a strong advocate of restoring immigrant benefits that were lost under welfare reform legislation in 1996 and of easing the process of attaining legal status for undocumented residents, including Jews from the former Soviet Union.
Aviv also said her group would focus on legislation providing prescription drug coverage for seniors because that is an area Bush has indicated as a priority.
The issue is not as important to UJC as other issues, such as home health care for seniors, Aviv said, but “we want to be practical and realistic.”
There are still a lot of factors that need to play out before a formal strategy becomes clear for Jewish groups, including Bush’s appointment of Cabinet positions and the remaining actions of the lame-duck Congress.
The appointment of former members of Congress who have good working relationships with Jewish organizations may help tailor the strategy for dealing with the new administration.
Price said, for example, if Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) is named to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, JCPA may put more focus on issues such as elderly housing.
In any case, few expect major initiatives in the early days of the new government.
“The mandate from the voters is to do modest things and don’t get carried away with anything,” said Munson, the House committee staffer.