After a month of singular attention to the Persian Gulf crisis, President Bush returned to Washington yesterday to face an agenda brimming with domestic and foreign concerns, including a hastily scheduled meeting next Sunday with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
The one-day summit with Gorbachev in Helsinki is designed to send a signal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that the two superpowers are united against him.
"I think it will send a powerful message to Saddam," an administration official predicted yesterday.
But before he leaves for Finland, Bush will plunge into other issues awaiting him. These include the long-stalled talks with Congress aimed at reducing the federal budget deficit, pending civil rights and clean air legislation, the Supreme Court nomination of 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David H. Souter and the midterm elections that will keep Bush on the road campaigning for much of the next two months.
"I think the plate is absolutely full, and it's going to be a month and a half of day-in, day-out, knock-down, drag-out," said one Republican of the president's schedule.
As Bush got in one last round of golf in Kennebunkport, Maine, on a breezy, late summer day yesterday, aides in Washington were working on arrangements for the meeting with Gorbachev that Bush initiated in an effort to make certain there are no misunderstandings between the two nations as the standoff in the gulf continues.
White House officials will begin making more substantive preparations for the Helsinki meeting today. The two leaders are expected to meet twice on Sunday, with a joint statement and news conference likely at the end of the summit.
Because the two leaders' last meeting was just a few months ago in Washington, administration officials anticipate that it will be easier to get ready for this summit. "You don't need a lot of briefing time for this," an administration official said.
Despite some concerns raised by Soviet officials last week, administration officials believe Bush and Gorbachev remain in basic agreement on gulf strategy. But the discussions will give the two leaders a chance to air any differences face to face.
The failure of talks between United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz over the weekend has put increased attention on the Bush-Gorbachev meeting as a possible vehicle to help provide a diplomatic solution to the crisis. But Bush has been unyielding in his insistence that Saddam abide by the U.N. resolutions calling for unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait, restoration of the Kuwaiti government and the release of all hostages.
The Helsinki summit is only one element of the administration's gulf strategy. While Bush has successfully orchestrated the international condemnation of Saddam over the last month, administration officials know that the longer the standoff in the gulf continues, the more difficult it will be to maintain unity.
"In the long term, if it remains status quo in the gulf, you'll see some support erode," an official said yesterday.
Aides recognize that the next phase of the crisis -- continuing enforcement of economic sanctions and resisting pressures for a diplomatic solution that falls short of the U.N. mandates -- could be even more difficult to manage.
What makes the coming months so critical for Bush is that major domestic and foreign policy issues will be competing for his attention. "This is the first time we've had a domestic and a foreign policy issue up front with neither able to budge the other," an administration official said.
The budget talks, which resume on Thursday at Andrews Air Force Base, are now intertwined with the gulf crisis. The cost of U.S. troop deployment means that Democrats will not be able to cut as much from defense. But that could lead to higher taxes, deeper domestic spending cuts or a rollback of the negotiators' goal of reducing the deficit by $50 billion next year.
The gulf conflict helped overshadow potential controversy over Bush's nomination of Souter to the Supreme Court, giving the little-known New Hampshire judge an opportunity to prepare himself quietly for hearings that begin Sept. 13 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Administration officials anticipate some Democrats may try to "dust up" Souter during the hearings over the abortion issue. But they do not foresee the kind of organized opposition by abortion-rights and other groups that defeated Judge Robert H. Bork's Supreme Court nomination in 1987, "absent a major blunder that is totally uncharacteristic of David Souter," according to one official.
Two other legislative issues hold peril for the administration. One is the massive clean air bill that is now in a conference committee; the other is civil rights legislation that the administration has threatened to veto.
Bush will kick off his political campaigning on Thursday with a trip to Kansas and Florida. Immediately after returning from Helsinki he will take another political trip to California and Colorado. Aides said yesterday there are no plans to scale back Bush's campaigning because of the gulf crisis or the budget talks.
Although administration officials recognize the political stakes involved in all this, they do not anticipate any immediate problems for Bush. So far he enjoys overwhelming public support for his handling of the crisis in the Middle East, and administration officials believe any political fallout from the budget talks will affect both Bush and the Democrats.
Officials say they recognize the uncertainties surrounding the outcome of the gulf conflict as well as the potential for an economic recession. But they argue that even if things turn out badly in either area, neither is likely to be clear for months.