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To Succeed, Bush Has to Be More Than Liked

February 28, 2001|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton, who writes a column for Newsday in New York, worked in the White House of former President Bush. E-mail: pinkerto@ix.netcom

For a new president, it's easy to make a good first impression in his debut speech to a joint session of Congress. Democrats may be sorry that Al Gore didn't deliver this big address Tuesday night, but surely the whole country is relieved that it wasn't Bill Clinton at the podium. For his part, George W. Bush was relaxed, confident and gracious; he said he was eager to "bridge old divides," but he will need some major firepower to turn initial impressions into lasting impact.

Indeed, Bush hasn't done much of anything, and yet the latest Gallup poll rating shows his job approval-disapproval rating at 62% to 21%--not bad for a guy who lost the popular vote 47.9% to 48.4% just three months ago. Of course, as President Clinton proved, in a time of peace and prosperity, it's not hard to be popular, no matter what one does.

To be sure, the bland amiability of most Americans toward Bush has not translated into blind acceptance of his program. The new president, not known for his articulation on most issues, was concise in his description of such obscure concepts as marginal tax rates and the marriage penalty.

Yet it will take more than a single speech to prove to the electorate that his program is, in fact, "reasonable and responsible."

Indeed, the polls show he has some selling to do on his particulars; the Washington Post/ABC poll found, for example, that given a choice between various tax-and-spend priorities, 35% of Americans chose more domestic spending, 25% chose strengthening Social Security and just 22% chose cutting income taxes. Moreover, the Democrats' attacks on the plan--a muffler for the middle class, a Lexus for the rich--seem to be having an effect; the same poll found that 53% preferred the Democratic approach of targeting tax cuts to lower- and middle-income people, while 43% liked the Republican across-the-board approach.

Bush tried to fight that argument last night, asserting that his tax plan would "restore basic fairness," but Republicans will never win a class-warfare argument with Democrats. Instead, they must make a different argument, that a tax cut, including reductions in top marginal tax rates, is essential to sustaining economic growth. With the Nasdaq down to the lowest level in three years, with consumer confidence down to the lowest level in five years, with news of layoffs everywhere, the prospect of what Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Gilmore gleefully calls "the Clinton recession" is real. Using that gloom as a backdrop, it's Bush's challenge to paint a bright alternative; the choice, he said, was between a "faltering" economy and putting money "back into the hands of the people who buy goods and create jobs."

But as pitchmen of all kinds know, the key to communication is clarity. Yet at the moment that Bush must shift the burden of the tax argument from "Democratic fairness" to "Republican growth," he has to take on a side issue--the paying off of the national debt.

Four years ago, the Democratic president and the Republican Congress agreed to balance the budget and run surpluses; last year, Clinton said the national debt could be paid off by 2009. But it wasn't until last month that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan pointed out that it would be difficult to pay off the debt so soon because much of that debt--including the savings bond that you got as a gift and now you can't find--is not liquid for decades to come. Had the Bushies noticed this earlier, and gotten the word out sooner, the sales job would have been easier.

As it was, Bush was left to explain prior to Tuesday that his economic plan represented "the largest repayment of debt ever," leaving critics to snipe that he was backing off from Clinton's commitment to eliminate the debt completely.

And Bush, who now sets off to barnstorm the country, will need the clarity that comes from a simple message, repeated over and over again. As he said Tuesday night, in his best red-meat applause-getter: "The surplus is not the government's money, the surplus is the people's money. On their behalf, I am here to ask for a refund."

President Bush passed a big Washington test Tuesday night. Now he must prove to the country that he can convert general bonhomie into a specific bottom line.

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