The president plays defense.

Published August 22, 2001 8:47PM (EDT)

Daily line "No, this tax relief has laid the foundation for expanding economic growth. And now we must resist the temptation of a bigger threat to growth, and that's excessive federal spending. The biggest threat to our recovery is for the Congress to overspend. We have the funds to meet our obligations, so long as they resist the temptation to spend."
--President Bush warning an audience at Harry S. Truman High School in Missouri about big-spending Dems

Bush buzz

Does anybody miss "the politics of prosperity," when Democrats and Republicans were debating exactly how America should spend the big wad of cash in its back pocket? Now, President Bush appears to be digging in his heels for an ongoing war of words with the Democrats over who is responsible for the suddenly empty coffers in Washington.

Bush is using a time-honored Republican tactic of blaming big spenders in Congress, but this strategy could prove tricky. He has to keep the American public convinced that his tax cut left plenty of money in Washington to do the government's business, and issuing preemptive warnings about Congress having to live within its means could backfire. Americans could take up Bush's chorus and blame their representatives for political porking out, but Bush's belt-tightening talk could reinforce the public's doubts about the nation's economic health, and that can't be good for the White House.

For the Democrats, rhetorically at least, the shrinking surplus is an easy target. Their leadership has been warning from the get-go that the Bush tax cut was too big, though they didn't put up that much of a fight to stop it. Perhaps that was the point. In the spring, rolling over on Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut was taken as a sign of the weakness of Democratic leadership, but blasting it as irresponsible has given them plenty to do over the summer.

And Bush himself has helped. The president's Monday speech calling for Reaganesque increases in defense spending prompted a warning from Democratic elder statesman Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. According to Byrd and other Dems, Bush has already spent the money that could have financed military reform on his tax cut package. If Bush continues to insist on more military spending, Byrd argues, the president is basically pressing the Congress into deficit.

The timing of Bush's push for Social Security reform is also playing into the Democrats' hands. The White House commission he empanelled to explore partial privatization as an option for the national retirement plan is meeting -- without media coverage -- on Wednesday, just a day after another Federal Reserve Board interest rate cut prompted a dive in the stock market.

During the campaign, when the stock market was still climbing, Bush's partial privatization option looked like a winner; of course the American people could build a better nest egg by playing the market than by letting the federal government keep watch over the cash. Now, the issue could morph back into a political third rail, and the Democrats will have an easier time labeling Bush's penchant for privatization as unrealistic and reckless, the product of a president out of touch with the worries of ordinary working people.

That's how Bush's political foes have portrayed his month-long August break, as another sign that the president can't understand people who would be laughed out of their offices for taking 30 days off after six months on a job. Though the president's team has tried to counter the charges of laziness by insisting that Bush is working very, very, very hard in Crawford, Texas, and by flying him out to Middle America for photo ops and speeches.

But it seems that Bush has taken the hint that a month is too long to be away from the White House. Last week, his staff announced that he would be back in Washington on Aug. 31, three days ahead of the originally planned Labor Day return. On Monday, Bush shaved another day off his Texas summer break, telling reporters that his wife wanted to come back on Aug. 30.

So Bush is learning that timing counts a lot in the politics of perception, at least as far as his vacation is concerned. The Democrats are aiming to teach him that it counts a lot in economic policy, too.

And don't miss the president's hour-by-hour accounting of just what he's accomplishing in Crawford. Bush let USA Today interview him at his vacation home, during which he reminds the American public, again, just how good it feels to be out of Washington. He does lament, however, that he can't leave his bubble behind. "I understand the bubble. I recognize the president is in a bubble. But I like to, to the extent that I can, kind of expand the diameter of the bubble," he said. "The ranch is a good place to do so."

Wednesday schedule: Bush goes back to full-time vacationing at his Texas ranch. There are no public events scheduled.

-- Alicia Montgomery

This day in Bush history

August 22, 1997: An idle boast from Texas Gov. George W. Bush prompts the Austin American Statesman to incorrectly report that a Bush fundraising dinner raked in $2 million. The event netted only $861,000 for his 1998 reelection bid, still well above the $500,000 goal. While Bush continued to deny presidential ambitions, the big ticket event and his schedule of out-of-state donor bashes fuel talk among state politicians that Bush is laying the foundation for a White House run.

Burning Bush

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Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Alicia Montgomery, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

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By Salon Staff

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