WASHINGTON It is becoming increasingly clear that President Bush has boxed himself into an awkward political corner with his decision to delay his program for rescuing the economy until his State of the Union address to Congress late next month.
At the most obvious level, the timetable suggests a cavalier attitude toward a recession that seems to be broadening its reach every week. Even natural allies of the Republican president are restive. After Bush met with a group of real estate executives the other day, the president of the National Homebuilders Association told reporters: "We would like him to move as quickly as possible. I don't see the economy righting itself."
Trying to put the best face on his policy of all deliberate speed, Bush argues that he is doing what can be done now without taking rash steps that might backfire. "We're not going to do anything dumb," he said the other day, adding, however, that he would leave "no stone unturned to promote economic growth."
The most dangerous political aspect of the delay is the potential it has for raising expectations in the electorate that the State of the Union speech, when it finally arrives, will offer proposals so radical that our economic troubles will be over. In fact, the most realistic expectation is that Bush will offer a warmed-over version of some "growth package" that will include his favorite hobbyhorse, reduction of the tax rate on capital gains, and other incentives to job creation. The only question if there can be any doubt in an election year is what he will have to say about tax relief for the middle class.
The delayed-action response on the economy also is flawed politics to the degree it fails to recognize how much more tensely partisan all issues will become in the next few weeks. Even the Democratic leaders of Congress, who spent the first two years-plus of the Bush administration rolling over for the president, have begun to recognize that a presidential election is less than a year away.
But the president is now planning to deal with the economy roughly three weeks before the New Hampshire primary in which he will be challenged by conservative television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan. That timing inevitably will mean that his program will be seen as a response to the political threat to the Bush campaign, however minor that threat may be.
By that time, the congressional Democrats now holding hearings on tax reduction also may have come up with some party program of their own. And whether they do or not, the Democrats actively competing in the presidential primaries surely will have filled in the specifics of their ideas. If the president imagines he can make any realistic appeal for bipartisanship in the economy, he is kidding himself.
The truth, of course, is that there are no easy answers to the decline in the economy. If there were, either the White House or Congress would have put them forward long ago. Even if you tTC make a leap of faith and accept the notion that the Republican "growth package" idea is sound, you also have to recognize that it is no quick fix. The most that could happen would be for Bush to restore some confidence among both businessmen and consumers. And if Bush can do that, there is no reason to delay it six or seven weeks while unemployment rises and businesses fail.
But Bush is very much a conventional Washington establishment figure. To him, the State of the Union address is a very big deal. The implication is that Americans concerned about their economic condition should be satisfied that he is promising to use such an important occasion to deal with their concern.
And Bush also resents being "stampeded" into action by others. That attitude was clear, for example, in the long resistance to firing John Sununu as White House chief of staff until the demand for a change became impossible to ignore. For the 8 million Americans who are out of work, however, the case for urgent action was proven a long time ago.
At his press conference the other day, Bush seemed to accept political reality. "When the economy goes down," he said, "the president takes a hit, there's no question about that." But in this case the president's policy of acting with such deliberation may make the hit harder than it otherwise would have been.