Will tax push trip up Bush?

March 08, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

GEORGE W. BUSH is one smooth operator. If he keeps going at his present pace, they could start calling him "Slick Georgie."

He's had the smoothest takeoff of any recent president, sliding behind his Oval Office desk as though he's been there before.

It helps to follow in your dad's footsteps.

It also helps if you have the good sense to hire the best of your dad's employees -- the ones who know their way around Washington and know how to run a business. Looks like George W. got something out of Harvard's MBA program.

The president has been smart in letting his handlers fashion a strategy, then following the script. They know he's not a Clintonesque or a Reaganesque speaker. Short, brisk sentences -- and not many of them -- is his approach.

But he's learned to string enough simple sentences together to give a good speech.

This president's strong point is in one-on-one communications. He's a likable fella.

Had he not gone into elective politics, he could have made a fortune as a back-slapping, good-old-boy lobbyist. He's got the human touch.

He's got discipline, too.

Just as he did as Texas governor, President Bush focuses on a narrow agenda and stays on purpose. His Big Three of the 2000 campaign, and of the 2001 presidency remain tax cuts, education and the military. Mentioned, but clearly on the back burner, are Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs.

Tax cuts stand above the rest, though. He keeps it in simplistic terms, and his comments never vary. "It's not Washington's money, it's the taxpayer's." And, after all, who doesn't want a break on their taxes?

Underpinning this push for tax cuts -- $2 billion worth when everything is added in -- is a determined effort by the conservative Republican majority to cut the heck out of the federal government.

If Mr. Bush gets his full tax cut approved, there won't be nearly enough money to continue the current spending trends. Notice that in his first budget, the president proposes cutbacks in 10 departments, including transportation (minus 11 percent), agriculture (minus 7 percent) and the environment (minus 6 percent).

That's just for starters. By the time the Bush tax cuts kick into high gear, most federal agencies -- except a favored few -- will be looking at severe budget reductions every year.

Yet listening to him speak, you can see why so many Americans like his confidence and his determination to convince everyone that you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Here's what he told Congress is possible with tough management and a bulging surplus: A sweeping tax cut; a defense build-up; a missile defense system; a big boost in education spending; a private savings account in and preservation of Social Security; putting Medicare on sound footing; a prescription drug program for seniors; and paying down the national debt by $2 billion.

If he were a Democrat, Mr. Bush would be whistling, "Happy Days Are Here Again." Instead, he seems to be humming, "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover."

The question now is whether the president can sell his message to a skeptical populace.

After the president's speech, Zogby International, a respected, Republican-leaning pollster, found that while folks favored tax cuts 51 percent to 39 percent, more supported the Democrats' limited version (40 percent) than the bigger Bush plan (38 percent).

More alarming for the Bush brain trust, only 20 percent said tax cuts should be a priority. The No. 1 priority was -- surprisingly -- creating programs to help working families (29 percent). Second on the list was saving Social Security (27 percent). Tax cuts came in fourth, slightly behind paying down the debt.

That doesn't bode well for Mr. Bush, whose favorability rating in the poll was high -- 67 percent.

Similar results came from a Maryland poll conducted by Gonzales/Arscott Research and Communications. The new president did well on the job-approval question, but by a narrower margin, 47 percent to 34 percent.

That's a good showing in such a solidly Democratic state for a Republican who took office under a cloud of doubt about the legitimacy of his election.

The worrisome numbers, once again, centered on public opinion diverging sharply from what Mr. Bush considers his A-1 issue.

Maryland citizens say their top concern is saving Social Security and Medicare (24 percent), followed closely by education (22 percent), then by the economy (17 percent). Only 10 percent put tax cuts as the highest priority.

One portion of the Bush tax-cut plan -- which the president strongly endorsed in his speech to Congress -- is abolition of the estate tax. That's a potential political bombshell.

Among Marylanders in the poll, this idea was roundly rejected, 58 percent to 28 percent. Even among Maryland Republicans, estate-tax elimination was a loser, with only 39 percent of them favoring it.

Mr. Bush's prime objective still doesn't mesh with the public's. And with concern over the economy building, with Democrats sure to beat the drum about tax cuts posing a threat to Social Security, the president's persuasive powers will be put to the test.

The outcome could determine if we start calling him "Slick Georgie" or just view him as another imperiled president.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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