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Next U.S. president faces daunting challenges

WASHINGTON, Nov 16 (Reuters) - The next U.S. president, whoever he may be, faces a daunting task in trying to heal wounds from the protracted Florida election battle and lead a sharply divided nation, analysts said on Thursday.

He is likely to move swiftly to reach out to the loser and his supporters, they said, perhaps by awarding them an early policy victory or appointing multiple cabinet ministers from the other party.

But the winner is certain to be beset by political problems, both in a fractious Congress where partisanship has become the norm, and in the population at large, where he will be dogged by questions about the fairness of his election.

"Whoever comes out of this is going to have a very difficult time governing," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. "There will be a credibility problem -- there are a lot of true believers out there on both sides."

Several analysts said the intensity of the vote-count conflict in Florida could create an early opportunity for the new president to gain stature in the eyes of a public grown weary of the partisan bickering and saber-rattling of the two years since President Bill Clinton's impeachment.

"People are craving a resolution to this," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "The next president will do something, a gesture or a series of gestures, to reach out to the loser and calm things down."

Either man will bear heavy burdens in the early days of his presidency. Democrat Al Gore would carry the weight of long-standing Republican hatred for Clinton, while Republican George W. Bush would be the first loser of the popular vote to take office as a result of an Electoral College win since Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1888.

Disputed vote count

Neither candidate reached the 50 percent vote threshold, meaning he will govern a nation where a majority of voters supported someone else. He will take office after a lengthy and disputed vote count in Florida that is almost certain to leave supporters of the loser feeling cheated.

And he will have to work with a deadlocked Congress where Republicans hold marginal control by razor-thin margins, and party leaders in the House of Representatives rarely even talk to each other.

It is not a recipe for success.

"Whoever the losers are, they will have a reason to be disgruntled," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego. "There are no non-aggrieved parties here."

The winner immediately will reach out to moderates in the other party to build support, but those efforts probably will be resisted by hard-liners in his own party who will not want to compromise ahead of crucial congressional elections in 2002.

"It's going to be a balancing act for the new president," said Marshall Wittmann of the Hudson Institute. "As he strikes deals with the other party, does he cause disquiet in his own party?"

Bush would "have to bring the whole kennel of Blue Dogs down to Austin," Wittmann said, referring to the centrist coalition of House Democrats, while Gore would try to pick off enough moderate Republicans to carry the day on key issues.

Presidential honeymoon

Presidential honeymoon The customary presidential honeymoon will be short-lived, analysts said. While both parties will begin by trading rhetorical valentines, translating that into concrete achievements will be much harder.

Baker said either candidate would sidestep early battles and might grant the other side a policy victory or two in hopes of keeping the partisan fighting to a minimum at the start.

Major achievements, like approval of Bush's huge tax-cut package or Gore's health care reform plans, will be out of the question after the disputed election, he said. Some smaller, incremental progress on issues might be possible, however.

"I don't put it out of the realm of possibility that there will be some small achievements in the first year," Wittmann said. "But beneath the surface there will be simmering bitterness."

History could provide lessons on the future of disputed presidencies. Tenpas said she saw similarities between the possible election of Bush, son of former president George Bush, and the 1888 election of Harrison, grandson of former president William Henry Harrison.

If Bush wins, both men from well-connected political families would have won without a majority of the popular vote and would head into situations where their party controlled Congress. In Harrison's case, however, Congress turned against him in his first two years and he wound up losing his first reelection bid in 1892.

"He wasn't embraced widely," she said. "There was a lot of skepticism about him."

The 1824 election of John Quincy Adams, son of former president John Adams, was decided by the House after Adams failed to get a popular or electoral majority. Adams, an intellectual and diplomat, had few substantial accomplishments as president and also lost his reelection bid.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Thursday, November 16, 2000


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