Optimistic Bush budget needs dash of realism

Speech: President's plan for new spending and a tax cut doesn't account for a lot of things.

March 01, 2001

NOT SINCE Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey, dubbed "the happy warrior" for his eternally sunny outlook, has Washington seen such boundless optimism as expressed by George W. Bush in his first formal address to Congress.

We can have it all, the president told lawmakers.

Protect Social Security. Fix Medicare. Build a missile defense system. Pump up spending on education. Add a prescription-drug program for seniors. Improve our national parks. Pay down the federal debt. Enact a $1.6 trillion tax cut.

It was a constantly upbeat performance by the new president, who laid out his budget agenda in broad terms.

He offered enticements to Democrats and liberals along the way, but never really budged from his core conservative Republican belief that "government should be active but limited."

His speech closely resembled his campaign rhetoric. Nearly all of the themes he sounded Tuesday night were identical to what candidate Bush told voters last fall.

Yesterday, he once again was in campaign mode, barnstorming around the country in an attempt to whip up grassroots enthusiasm for his plan. His tax-cut cheerleading tour continues today.

It could be a difficult sell. Few Americans believe you can have it all. Polls indicate many remain dubious that the Bush tax cuts are affordable.

To make his numbers work for the coming year, the president had to slash funds for transportation by 11 percent and farm aid by nearly 8 percent. Money for law enforcement and immigration got cut, too.

That's just the beginning. When Mr. Bush's detailed budget is finally -- and belatedly -- released in April, the full extent of his budget cuts on programs will be known. Then the howls of protest will be heard.

As much as we would like a massive tax cut, cautionary signs argue against it.

The nation's economy is losing steam. The long expansion seems to have stalled. Growth hit only 1.1 percent in the last quarter. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan yesterday called it "a retrenchment that has yet to run its full course."

That will mean far less federal tax revenue than the president expects. It could quickly unbalance his budget and make a massive tax cut perilous.

Mr. Bush also has pulled the budget strings too tightly for most agencies.

Already, key Republican senators are mapping plans to increase the president's spending on military health programs, prisons, agriculture and energy research. The list is likely to grow before Congress finishes its work on the president's budget in the fall.

And finally, Mr. Bush's tax cut rests on extremely shaky economic predictions. He's counting on a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion that may never materialize.

Economic forecasts stretching out over a decade are virtually worthless.

Even Barry Anderson, the deputy director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that made the $5.6 trillion surplus forecast, told the Wall Street Journal: "Do we know what the country will look like in 2010? Hell, no. We don't even know if the glaciers will roll back over the continent by then."

So Mr. Bush's optimistic speech must be viewed with some realism and some skepticism. The nation's weakening economy may not be strong enough to support such a huge tax cut. Spending for domestic programs almost certainly will have to be increased. And compromise must be found with Democrats, especially in the Senate.

Mr. Bush set a positive tone in his remarks to Congress. He showed a willingness to meet lawmakers halfway.

Now comes the hard part of give-and-take, of adapting to changing economic and geopolitical events, of learning to run a country rather than a campaign. Mr. Bush's honeymoon may not last much longer.

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