Putting on a happy face

December 21, 2004

PRESIDENT BUSH prides himself on being an optimistic man, and he proved it again yesterday at a celebratory year-end press conference.

He gave himself high marks for his 2004 performance -- taking credit for boosting prosperity, enhancing security and serving the cause of freedom and peace. And he promised even more wonders for the year ahead. The military will get "every tool and resource." His budget will maintain "strict discipline." He'll foster "a spirit of bipartisanship" to "build the foundation of a stronger, more prosperous country."

Whew! With a record and agenda like that, it's hard to believe Mr. Bush had to claw his way to re-election and only won with 51 percent of the vote.

What's more, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is "gruff" but good-hearted and is doing "a really fine job" despite the abject failure in Iraq of his lighter, leaner theory of military warfare. And Mr. Bush has "great confidence" in the White House vetting process, though it missed the tabloid-scandal personal life of erstwhile homeland security nominee Bernard Kerik.

Truth is, the picture is far bleaker than Mr. Bush acknowledged on almost every point, and in some cases -- notably Iraq -- downright gloomy. Though more reflective than usual, he nonetheless risks his credibility by painting everything the same rosy hue. Mr. Bush's supporters are already inclined to think the best of him, but he can't broaden his reach to the rest of America if he seems so out of touch with reality that people tune him out.

Some specifics:

Some signs point to an economy on the upswing. But others, including lingering job losses and slowing of the growth rate, make the outlook tenuous.

An overhaul of the intelligence network may enhance security, but Mr. Bush had to be pressured to back the legislation, and it's far too soon to determine its impact.

His promise of unstinting largesse to the military was doubtless intended to counter embarrassment at supply shortages in Iraq, but represents the antithesis of budget discipline. He's never been very strict about budgets, anyway.

He claimed last year's addition of drug coverage to Medicare will rescue the program from looming insolvency, but acknowledged "some actuaries haven't come to that conclusion yet." Most predict the opposite.

Mr. Bush reserved his pessimism for the financial fate of Social Security, which is in better shape than Medicare but has been targeted for overhaul by the president who wants to do away with its "defined benefit."

The president contended the American people are "compassionate" enough to support easing immigration laws for workers. That sentiment isn't shared, though, by conservative House Republicans eager to tighten the rules.

Polls suggest Mr. Bush's post-election honeymoon is already over. Instead of trying to rekindle the romance with happy talk, the president should show his respect for Americans by leveling with them.

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