Bush to speak on economy to begin national campaign

April 15 tax-cut speech will kick off aides' tour, rallying support for plan

April 15, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Hoping to harness wartime popularity to push his domestic agenda, President Bush will give a major economic speech today and is sending administration officials to fan out across the country to argue that he has the right plan to create jobs and cure economic woes.

As the war increasingly winds down, Bush will try to overcome tepid public approval of his economic stewardship. The White House hopes Bush's speech today in the Rose Garden will begin to rally support for his tax-cut plan, which is facing stiff resistance in Congress.

According to most polls, around 7 in 10 Americans back Bush's handling of the war; a similar proportion give favorable ratings to his overall job performance. But fewer than half of Americans approve of his handling of the ailing economy.

The president has failed to unify even his own party behind his $726 billion tax-cut plan, which he estimates would create more than 1 million jobs over two years and promote sustained economic growth.

Some key moderate Republican senators, expressing concern about rising federal deficits, say they won't support tax cuts anywhere near as deep as the president wants.

The trouble, Bush aides say, is that the president has not had the chance recently to make the case for his plan, with war consuming Americans, not to mention the cable news networks they watch. Indeed, today's speech will be the president's first on economic issues since the United States invaded Iraq nearly four weeks ago.

One senior administration official predicted that public approval of Bush's handling of the economy would rise once the president and top officials hit the stump to discuss the issue.

"A lot of attention has been focused on our efforts abroad," the official said, adding that Bush typically benefits from taking his messages "directly to the American people."

The president is using the April 15 tax deadline to kick off a public relations blitz. After his White House speech today, Bush will travel tomorrow to St. Louis to make his economic pitch at a Boeing factory.

Meanwhile, a portion of the president's Cabinet, along with other officials, will scatter across the nation in coming days to spotlight Bush's ideas on the economy. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow will be in Louisiana, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao in Chicago, Housing Secretary Mel Martinez in Florida and Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans in West Virginia.

All told, 25 administration officials will hold 57 events in 40 cities in 26 states, the White House announced yesterday.

Bush's aggressive shift in focus comes against the backdrop of what befell his father. President George H.W. Bush enjoyed lofty ratings immediately after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, only to see his numbers plummet and his bid for re-election fail.

The younger Bush faced an economic recession that was milder and briefer and occurred earlier in his term than the recession that doomed his father. This has given hope to Republicans that the son won't suffer the same fate as his father. Yet the economy has not shown clear signs of recovery, leaving open the possibility of economic weakness extending into Bush's re-election campaign.

The nation's jobless rate remains around 6 percent, the highest in eight years. Other economic signs are mixed.

Michael Franc, vice president for government affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, suggested that no matter the state of the economy, the younger Bush has proved more able than his father was to connect with Americans and show empathy for their hardships.

Still, Franc expressed concern that so far, "Bush's high popularity has not morphed into more momentum for his domestic agenda." As Bush has devoted his attention to war, Franc said, Democrats have been able to portray his tax-cut plan as risky and certain to swell deficits at a time when America needs money to fight terrorism and pay for the war in Iraq.

"Bush now has to paint a picture that, by strengthening the economy, he will enhance our ability to prevail in the war on terrorism," Franc said. "The way the package has been defined so far is, `Can we really afford a tax cut at a time of war?' "

Bush's economic plan would make permanent the income tax rate reductions in the tax-cut package approved in 2001. It would also abolish the tax that investors pay on corporate dividends.

In an alarming sign for the White House, several Republican moderates in the Senate have joined Democrats in calling for a more modest tax cut, between $350 billion and $550 billion. Their opposition essentially dooms Bush's chances of winning approval for his full plan in the closely divided Senate.

Meanwhile, other components of Bush's agenda seem to be languishing on Capitol Hill. His proposal to overhaul Medicare and add a prescription drug benefit faces staunch opposition. He has been unable to win passage of key elements of his plan to open federal funding to religious charities. His plan for money to combat AIDS in Africa also is stalled.

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