CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush is starting his sixth year in office with a flurry of activity designed to trumpet upturns in the economy, defend U.S. action in Iraq and challenge critics who claim his methods of fighting terrorists infringe on civil liberties.
On Sunday, the president strongly defended a program that allows domestic spying on those suspected of having ties to terrorist groups. "If somebody from Al Qaeda is calling you, we'd like to know why," Bush said in San Antonio.
While the president makes his case in public, his aides will be girding behind the scenes for looming battles with Congress over the renewal of the Patriot Act and the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito.
White House officials hope this week sets the tone for its top priorities as Bush visits the Pentagon on Wednesday to discuss the war on terror and then flies to Chicago on Friday to try to convince Americans that the economy is on solid footing.
"I've been thinking long and hard about 2006," Bush said Sunday after a visit to wounded troops in San Antonio. "And my hopes of course are for peace around the world. I'm going to continue to work as hard as I can to lay that foundation for peace."
Bush also mentioned the economy's increasing strength.
"We had a very strong economy and we'll work to keep the economy as strong as we possibly can so anybody that wants to find a job can find one," Bush said.
He'll use the backdrop of the White House to meet with a bipartisan group of former secretaries of state and defense to discuss terrorism and Iraq and to surround himself with U.S. attorneys to pressure lawmakers to renew the Patriot Act.
Congress failed to renew the anti-terror legislation before it left for the holidays, extending it instead for one month.
The debate has been complicated by lawmakers' concerns over recent revelations the administration permitted the National Security Agency to monitor some Americans' calls since the Sept. 11 attacks, a strategy some lawmakers fear may have infringed on civil rights.
The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is planning to conduct oversight hearings on the domestic spying after the committee holds its confirmation hearings foir Alito.
The White House gave few signals last week as Bush vacationed at his Texas ranch that it has any compromises in mind to break the stalement over the Patriot Act.
The meeting Tuesday in the Roosevelt Room with U.S. attorneys and other officials is being held to show support for those on the front lines of the war on terror, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.
Michael Greenberger, a Justice Department attorney in the Clinton administration and law professor at the University of Maryland, said meeting with federal prosecutors allows the White House to show it is standing firmly behind getting the act extended.
On Thursday, Bush meets with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense Condoleezza Rice and former secretaries of defense and state, including Madeleine Albright who served in the Clinton administration. Bush will be defending his strategies for curbing terrorism and outlining his game plan in the war.
In Iraq, the U.S. hopes that as more Iraqi police and army forces are trained, they will slowly take over responsibility for security from American troops. Much of that expectation depends on the ability of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups to form a broad-based government that will have the legitimacy to deflate the Sunni Arab-led insurgency.
"The conditions on the ground will dictate our force level," Bush said Sunday about a war that will be central in defining his presidency.
"How this president handles the Middle East in general and wins in Iraq in particular will be probably the most important definition of his presidency," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Sunday on CBS "Face The Nation."
On Friday, the president turns his attention to the economy, traveling to Illinois to visit the Chicago Board of Trade and make remarks.
The administration can point to the creation of some 1.8 million new jobs in the past year, rising consumer confidence and reports showing the economy grew at a healthy 4.1 percent in the third quarter. Democrats, on the other hand, note high prescription drug costs and confusion about the new Medicare prescription drug plan, high heating bills this winter, displaced workers in the Gulf Coast and rising federal deficits.
Bush's poll numbers for handling the economy are up a bit since gas prices have fallen, according to AP-Ipsos polling.
Also in January, Bush is expected to deliver his fifth State of the Union address — one that must be about more than Iraq, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Bush must also address issues like health care costs and the federal deficit.
"You're starting to see a revolt in Republican ranks," Jamieson said. "What is he going to say to members of his party about what he's doing about the deficit?"