Bush at midpoint

January 30, 2003

SEEMS LIKE it's been a long two years since George W. Bush became president. And the years haven't been easy on him. The man who appeared before the Congress and the nation Tuesday night was noticeably grayer, more somber. He was confident but not quite so cocky as in his early White House days.

Mr. Bush was obviously consumed by the looming prospect of war with Iraq. During an hour-long speech, he only truly became involved and impassioned as he built to the climax of his case for launching America on a pre-emptive and perhaps unilateral attack on Saddam Hussein. It's not yet clear whether he succeeded in resolving growing jitters here and abroad about the wisdom of such a venture. But Mr. Bush demonstrated convincingly that he has no doubts about the course he has chosen.

For the worriers, there may be some solace in that.

Domestic challenges facing Mr. Bush at the midpoint in his presidency are less dramatic but equally daunting. And he comes to them now dragging the baggage of prior mistakes and unkept promises.

For example, he boasted about winning "historic education reform" but has yet to provide the funds necessary to help schools meet its demands. He talked about the value of spending discipline in Washington, but the federal deficit has exploded on his watch. The projected shortfall this year is nearly $200 billion, not counting the impact of prospective tax cuts.

What's more, many of Mr. Bush's new proposals seem more aimed at currying favor with influential voting blocs than forming the basis for workable solutions to the nation's problems.

How else to explain the costly dividend tax cut he wants for mostly wealthy investors, while offering nothing in relief to the states? Most states are facing huge financial crises because of tax revenue lost to the recession, and may have to raise taxes while Mr. Bush is cutting them.

The president's $400 billion commitment to modernize Medicare and provide prescription drug coverage is welcome - but only as a starting point in the debate. Republicans have tried before to weave private insurance into the program and it hasn't worked.

Also welcome was Mr. Bush's proposal to direct new research dollars into the development of hydrogen-powered cars. He sounded almost like Al Gore in his assertion that the answer to America's energy problems is finding clean alternatives to fossil fuels. Yet he called again for passage of energy legislation that would open Alaskan wilderness areas to drilling for oil and gas.

Of course, the president made the predictable gestures toward his conservative base, such as calling for a ban on so-called partial birth abortions.

Yet he trumped those with a surprising and eloquent appeal for a $15 billion campaign to provide life-extending medicines to AIDS victims in Africa and the Caribbean, and a prevention program aimed at turning the tide of the pandemic.

Maybe that was just a feint toward the center with visions of his re-election campaign dancing in his head. It was a great idea nonetheless and the right direction for American leadership.

No doubts about that.

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