As he stumps the hinterland to make a case for his first federal budget, President Bush sounds a lot like Goldilocks. He wants a government that's not too small, not too large, but just right.
The same can be said of any tax "refund" that he finally wins from Congress. Faced with a hot and large bowl of porridge in the form of a multitrillion-dollar budget surplus, the temptation in Washington is one of excess, in both spending and tax cuts.
As the two parties knock heads to come up with a compromise by fall, the trajectory of Mr. Bush's four-year presidency will be set. His bully pulpit will shrink or rise depending on whether he wins his $1.6 trillion (plus?) tax cut. And Congress's stature will rise or fall depending on whether it stops the spending excesses of the past three years.
Both parties are dealing with real change as they cut political deals on trillions of dollars. But both are staking their positions on jello-wobbly forecasts over 10 years.
More of the economy these days depends on the perceptions of consumers and investors as well as real conditions (see story on page 1). No forecaster has a crystal ball to measure future anxiety.
Bush's style of governance, which was best seen in the confidence and polish of his 49-minute speech before Congress on Tuesday night, has so far kept Democrats playing catch-up with his proposals and his figures. He has defied his critics in combining bold leadership with a conciliatory style.
But this new president still has much persuading to do in Congress to justify the size of his proposed tax cut and its effects on the rich and poor. He helped his case by more forcefully committing himself to reducing the government debt by $2 trillion over the next decade. And his plans to end many programs and delay big spending projects helps his numbers look better.
While Democrats have found a mantra in speaking of "fiscal discipline," the president believes only a large tax cut can force Congress to trim the pork. Neither party wants to be stuck raising taxes in a few years if either the spending increases or tax cuts prove excessive.
Beyond the macro numbers, Congress and Mr. Bush should easily find compromise on the president's spending priorities in education, military pay raises, and healthcare. In these, Bush showed what he means by compassionate conservatism: He defined a need and wants to fund it without creating big government.
Bush's next task will be more difficult: sticking to his goals while, as he put it Tuesday, bridging "old divides."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society