CRAWFORD, Texas – The last time President Bush vacationed at his ranch, he wrestled with the thorny issue of embryonic stem cell research. He arrived at his Texas home Wednesday faced with decisions that make last summer seem like a simpler time.
Even before he landed in Texas, Bush was working the phone on Air Force One to confront a crisis. With the economy skidding toward collapse in Argentina, Bush called the leaders of three Latin American countries — Mexico, Chile and Uruguay — to discuss the matter. Once on the ranch, he took a happy-holidays call from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The president must consider the next target in the war on terrorism, the fate of American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and how to jump-start the economy.
And he's starting work on framing his first State of the Union address to Congress next month. Beyond that, he will have to propose a budget for government spending squeezed by the recession and demands of fighting terrorism.
He also must decide whether to circumvent the Democrat-controlled Senate and install polarizing nominees at the Labor and State departments. The Senate refused to vote on Otto Reich and Eugene Scalia before leaving for recess last week. So-called recess appointments by Bush would inflame tensions between the White House and the Senate.
The president plans to keep a low profile on the ranch for the remainder of the holidays, when many Americans are absorbed in family gatherings.
He will receive daily briefings by videoconference each day, but plans few public appearances outside of a trip to Austin, Texas, next week, adviser Karen Hughes said. He is likely to make an out-of-state trip in early January.
At the ranch, Bush must decide whether and how to widen military, diplomatic and financial efforts against terrorists. Aides say Somalia is a prime target because some of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda forces are believed to be in the country and because there is no central government to control their activities.
Terror target No. 1, bin Laden, remains at large, and Bush is trying to deliver on his promise to bring him to justice.
On the same day Bush got away for his vacation, a Qatar-based television station aired a videotape of bin Laden saying he was speaking "three months after the blessed attack against the international infidels and its leaders, the United States, and two months after the beginning of the vicious aggression against Islam." Administration analysts were studying the tape and had no immediate comment.
Other international conflicts loom: Anger is running high between Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war in Afghanistan, and India, following a suicide attack on India's parliament Dec. 13.
Though there are signs that peace talks may resume soon in the Mideast, the violence continues. Israeli troops fired from tanks and helicopter gunships at Palestinian gunmen holed up in a West Bank house Wednesday, killing one man and wounding two in an incursion into a Palestinian-controlled town.
All this hung over Bush as he boarded Air Force One with Laura Bush and her mother, Jenna Welch, early Wednesday morning.
He was bundled against the cold weather with a heavy overcoat and scarf, shivering as he turned to wave to well-wishers at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Arriving in the warm sunshine of Texas, he showed his pleasure at being home, smiling broadly as he carried his dog Barney down the airplane's stairway in Waco.
Bush likes to jog and roam the creek beds of his 1,600-acre ranch near the tiny town of Crawford, Texas.
But he was in work mode on the flight to Texas, where he is to stay through next week.
He and Hughes discussed the State of the Union speech, when he will seek to maintain support for the war and to assure Americans he is working to right the slumping economy.