Workers' two-faced friend

February 26, 2002|By Leonard Steinhorn

WASHINGTON - Almost daily, newspaper readers are greeted with vivid photos of President Bush surrounded by firefighters, police officers, soldiers, young people or blue-collar workers, all of whom are beaming in the presence of a confident president who is leading us in the war to avenge Sept. 11.

But I wonder if they would continue beaming if President Bush told them his economic policies are sticking them with the short end of one of the greatest transfers of wealth in American history, from working Americans to the very rich.

Would these proud and loyal Americans keep smiling if they learned that only the very rich will benefit substantially from the president's tax cuts, that the money used to pay for them is coming from the Social Security trust fund and that the resulting IOUs will come due when baby boomers start to retire in about 10 years?

Would they continue beaming if they learned that the only way to pay it all back is by raising their taxes, shrinking their retirement benefits or forcing them to work more years and retire later in life - a back-door tax the rich will never have to pay?

Would they keep beaming if they learned that Mr. Bush's deficits may push up interest rates, which translates to higher mortgage, car loan and credit card rates that will wipe out the measly few hundred dollars that most middle Americans will receive from the Bush tax cut?

So while the wealthy bathe in dollars they didn't need, the firefighters, police officers, soldiers, young people and blue-collar workers beaming with the president will be handed the bill.

To be sure, the Bush White House isn't the first to make such cynical use of photo opportunities.

President Bill Clinton surrounded himself with African-American women when signing a welfare reform bill that many civil rights groups opposed.

President Ronald Reagan was famous for creating warm and glowing images that contradicted some of the sharper edges of his policies - such as visiting the Special Olympics after slashing programs for the disabled, or cutting the ribbon at a senior citizens' home after reducing funds for the elderly.

Indeed, Mr. Bush's handlers would be remiss if they failed to create images of the president surrounded by young people and patriotic Americans. As communications experts, that's their job, and after all, the president is a politician who craves public support and wants to appear as Middle America's friend when he runs for re-election in 2004.

But it's a cynicism that will haunt American politics when the good and faithful people who believed the president was on their side wake up in a decade or so and realize that the joke was on them. President Bush campaigned for president saying he would do things differently in Washington. In truth, he's simply doing them better.

Leonard Steinhorn, a former political speechwriter, is an associate professor of communication at American University.

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