A presidential roadshow to pitch the tax cut

Bush officials fan out across America with a 'we care' message on the struggling economy.

The White House calls it "flooding the zone" - sending more than two dozen officials to some 60 events in over 40 cities and 26 states, all to "inform the American people about the president's jobs and economic-growth plan."

Never mind that the White House and Congress still haven't nailed down a plan, though a tax cut will almost certainly be in the mix. Never mind that President Bush is still luxuriating in a post-war swell of public and political accolades. The floundering economy remains Bush's electoral Achilles' heel, and the point of all these frequent-flier miles over the past two weeks is to convey that this administration is on the case, analysts say. If, in the process, the White House can also get a key senator or two to have a change of heart on the size of the tax cut, so much the better.

The Bush administration roadshow, whose headliners include various cabinet secretaries, "is simply a manifestation of concern about the economy," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "It's expressing what [Bush's] father stated in two words: 'I care.'"

The current President Bush traveled Thursday to Ohio, home state of one of the Republican senators who pledged to limit any new tax cut to $350 billion over 10 years - less than half of the $726 billion cut the president proposed. But Republicans who know Sen. George Voinovich doubt he would ever change his mind. The more likely value in visiting Ohio is to begin wooing a state that's vital in presidential politics: In 2000, Bush won Ohio with just 50 percent of the vote.

Other important Electoral College battleground states on the administration's Flood the Zone tour have been Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Florida.

Polls show that Americans aren't clamoring for another tax cut, following Bush's $1.3 trillion cut in 2001. When asked, "generally speaking, do you support or oppose the tax cuts proposed by President Bush in January," 50 percent said "support," and 38 percent said "oppose," a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll found earlier this month.

How money ranks and rankles

But in other polls, when tax cuts are stacked against alternative national priorities, they score low on the list, after items such as healthcare and education. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey in mid-April found a plurality supported the following position: "Congress should not pass President Bush's tax cut plan because the federal budget is now in deficit and the costs of the war are unknown."

Still, the economy ranks either No. 1 or No. 2 (after terrorism) in polls of Americans' concerns. And Bush is vulnerable on that score. He risks being the first president since 1945 to face a reelection campaign having presided over a net loss in employment. Since Bush took office, the nation has lost 2 million jobs. During Bill Clinton's two terms, in contrast, the nation gained 23 million new jobs. And in his one term, the first President Bush saw a gain of 2.5 million jobs.

Furthermore, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported last month that Bush's tax cut and spending plan would bring only a negligible stimulus to the economy - a noteworthy conclusion, given that the new director of the CBO was the chief economist in Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, and is an advocate of tax cuts.

A piecemeal strategy

The White House, of course, doesn't highlight that sort of information. Instead, it persists with data sheets promising Bush's plan will create 1.4 million new jobs by the end of next year.

The president's team is also working out Plan B, having already conceded that a $550 billion tax cut may be the best it can do, after some senatorial deal-cutting by moderate Republicans. One idea is to remove some of the most popular parts of the plan, and then reintroduce them separately in September - and pass those portions in a piecemeal fashion. One such item is the proposal to speed up elimination of the marriage-tax penalty. Another is a plan to expand the child tax credit.

One signature piece of Bush's plan - elimination of the tax on stock dividends - may be changed to make it less expensive. Instead of eliminating the tax immediately, that could shift to a five-year phase-in.

Bush may also change the date of implementation for his tax plan to the day it is signed, rather than having it retroactive to Jan. 1.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of Congress reconvening Monday, Bush and his surrogates are generating pressure from outside the beltway. "When an undersecretary of Commerce comes to Main Street USA, they do get a headline, an article, some positive press for the administration," says a senior Republican Senate aide. And in the end, analysts say, almost regardless of the final tax cut's size, the administration can claim victory and blame Democrats in the closely divided Senate for blocking a larger package.

Even if the tax cut winds up at $350 billion, that's much higher than the $100 billion the Bush team had initially discussed for this round. To deficit hawks, $350 billion would still represent a stunning blow to fiscal discipline. The fissure that has opened within the Republican Party - supply-siders vs. the anti-deficit crowd - is like to become only more pronounced.

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