CARTAGENA, Colombia — President Bush made a brief stop Monday in this war-ravaged nation to pledge continued U.S. aid to curb drug trafficking, but he could not escape to his Texas ranch for Thanksgiving without hearing an increasingly common question: How can you promise more spending when the U.S. budget deficit is rising so fast?
This time, the query came from a Colombian journalist. But Bush, wrapping up a three-day overseas journey -- the first since his reelection this month -- had been forced to confront that issue repeatedly during sessions with Pacific Rim leaders, corporate CEOs and journalists -- indicating that the state of the U.S. economy is a source of concern beyond the shores of the United States.
"I'd like to know how you're going to convince your Congress to continue helping us at a time that's so difficult with your own deficit after the war in Iraq," the journalist said. "And how much assistance will there be? Is it going to be as much as the $3 billion that has been given over the last four years?"
"Vamos a trabajar," Bush shot back, using the Spanish phrase for "We are going to work," then chuckling along with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe as the two stood behind lecterns for a joint news conference.
"Look, here's what you got to do with the Congress," Bush continued in English. "You say first of all it's an important issue, and the issue is whether or not we're willing to stand with a friend to help defeat narco-trafficking."
Still, for Bush, the moment underscored a recurring challenge. He promises to cut the deficit in half over the next five years, yet he continues to push a pricey agenda, from the ongoing war in Iraq to his proposed revamping of Social Security, which could cost trillions.
Bush acknowledged here and during appearances in Chile over the weekend at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that foreign leaders and American corporate chieftains alike were worried that a weakening U.S. dollar -- which some economists say is a function of rising deficit spending -- could wreak havoc around the world and jeopardize negotiations to create a Western Hemisphere free trade area.
The questions -- and Bush's assurances that he was committed to cutting spending -- came just as Congress was meeting in Washington to once again raise the government's borrowing cap, this time to $8.18 trillion.
Bush has drawn fire from Democrats and fiscal conservatives for his stewardship of the federal budget. When Bush took office in 2001, the U.S. projected a $5.6-trillion surplus over the following decade. It now is building up an estimated $2.3 trillion in deficits for the same number of years.
Speaking to reporters Sunday night in Santiago, the Chilean capital, Bush said that fellow APEC leaders had "expressed concern about the value of the U.S. dollar, and I reiterated the fact that my government has a strong-dollar policy." Bush blames the change in the U.S. financial picture on an economy burdened in part by the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.
"I also understand there is concern about whether or not our government is dedicated to dealing with our deficits, both short-term and long-term," Bush told a gathering of Pacific Rim CEOs on Saturday in Santiago.
"I look forward to standing up in front of the Congress in my State of the Union [address] and telling them why I submitted a budget that will help us deal with the short-term deficit of the United States, and I will do that," he added.
"And I'll also work with members of Congress to deal with the unfunded liabilities of our entitlement systems, so that we can say clearly to the world, the United States of America is committed to deficit reduction, both short-term and long-term."
Under Plan Colombia, the aid program begun under President Clinton to crack down on drug trafficking and curb the decades-long conflict among the government, Marxist rebels and right-wing militias, the U.S. has already poured more than $3.3 billion in aid into this country -- the vast majority in the form of law enforcement and military assistance.
Bush and Uribe have called the program a success, citing figures suggesting that the U.S.-backed fumigation efforts to destroy coca fields have succeeded.
But Colombia remains the world's biggest supplier of cocaine, and according to the U.S. government, 90% of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. originates in Colombia. The leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, remains powerful throughout remote regions of the country and is holding three Americans and more than 60 others hostage.
Security was, as a result, tight for Bush's arrival. Local news reports said that 15,000 police and Colombian troops had been mobilized. Helicopters flew low over Bush's motorcade and patrol boats zoomed alongside waterfront roads.
Bush and Uribe met in a presidential guesthouse ensconced on an island and held their news conference at a secure naval base.