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How does Mr. Bush see his new mandate?

George W. Bush has won re-election as President of the United States. Though the race was close, his margin of 51 per cent to 48 per cent and his edge of three million in the popular vote was decisive by recent American standards. To ice the cake, his Republican Party kept its hold on both houses of Congress.

Mr. Bush has every reason to savour his victory, won fair and square. But if he sees the win as a vindication for everything he has done, he should think again. Remember that he was once one of the more popular presidents in recent U.S. history, enjoying sky-high approval ratings for his strong leadership after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His standing has dropped sharply since then. On Tuesday, nearly half of American voters rejected an incumbent president in a time of war. That alone should chasten Mr. Bush. Though the majority preferred him over Democrat John Kerry, more and more Americans question his conduct of the war in Iraq and his stewardship of the U.S. economy.

With good reason, too. His performance on both files has been abysmal.

In Iraq, removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right thing to do considering his defiance of the international community, his abuse of his own people and his record of seeking dangerous weapons. But Mr. Bush's failure to prepare for the turmoil that followed the fall of the tyrant was inexcusable. Just as bad is his refusal to admit that anything is seriously wrong with the U.S.-led effort in Iraq today, a claim that is mocked by the almost daily horrors of a determined and growing insurgency.

On the economy, Mr. Bush has man-aged to dig his country into a $400-billion deficit hole by recklessly insisting on an enormous tax cut at a time of rising war expenses and laggardly growth.

If Mr. Bush takes his new mandate as a green light to push ahead with these policies, it will mean trouble for the United States and, indeed, the world. A victory such as this demands humility, not triumphalism.

On Iraq, Mr. Bush should level with the American people for once and admit that the insurgency poses a grave threat to the attempt to build a stable and democratic Iraq. That is simply facing facts. On the budget, he should admit that Americans cannot have a strong military, tight security and generous medical and retirement benefits while at the same time paying less and less in taxes. That is simple arithmetic.

On social issues, too, he should be careful about overinterpreting his win. Mr. Bush held his conservative base by emphasizing his opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and wider stem-cell research (see the editorial below). But Americans have mixed, conflicting views on these complex issues, and leading a cultural war under the banner of social conservativism would further polarize an already divided nation.

Instead, President Bush should take time to reflect on what his mandate really means and what he needs to do to secure the future security, stability and prosperity of the United States. That will not be easy for him. He is not a reflective man. His greatest strengths -- decisiveness, certainty, determination -- can sometimes be his greatest weaknesses. As Mr. Kerry put it, "you can be certain and be wrong." At his worst, Mr. Bush can be cocky, blinkered, heedless to reality, almost reckless in his certitude.

It is this stubborn quality, above all, that Mr. Bush needs to change. As he told Americans again and again this fall,leaders need to be able to make firm decisions and stick with them even when times get tough. Quite so. But they also need to be able to admit error, tolerate dissent and change course when the times demand it.

Much will depend on whether the President was sincere yesterday when, in his victory speech, he reached out to Kerry supporters and said, "I will need your support and I will work to earn it." If he is the leader he says he is, Mr. Bush will be wise, humble and discreet with the power that Americans have again bestowed on him.

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