Media mauls Bush on sunny surplus spin.

Published August 24, 2001 4:54AM (EDT)

Daily line

"So the nation is awash in extra money, and it's going to be. The real issue we're engaging in are how to maintain that kind of momentum and, of course, how to apportion that extra money most prudently for the long-term benefit of working Americans."
--Mitch Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget, explaining the latest surplus numbers

Bush buzz

With the Democrats running all over Washington declaring that the surplus sky is falling, and the latest numbers seeming to back them up, Bush sent out White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels to give the press the administration's peppy assessment of the situation. According to Daniels' sunny spin, the surplus is fat and happy, and will more than cover the America's spending needs. Daniels said that the "nation has entered an era of solid surpluses," and pointed out that the $160 billion surplus calculated by the OMB was "the second largest surplus in American history."

Sure, it's great news, if you overlook that all but $2 billion of this history-making surplus is part of the Social Security trust fund, which Bush has vowed not to touch. The White House is also counting on Americans to overlook the dramatic drop in the administration's own expectations of the surplus -- which it projected at more than $280 billion just four months ago -- and to accept the optimistic growth figures that will keep America on track for the $3.113 trillion surplus the Bush team projects for the next decade. Daniels gave it his best shot, unflinchingly delivering the president's message that the surplus is big enough, that it would be bigger still if Democrats kept their compulsive spending in check, and that there's no need to worry about the government dipping into the Social Security surplus.

Bush better hope that most Americans just take his word for it, because the sunny surplus spin didn't take with the national media. "Surplus Plunges In New Forecast," the Washington Post declared in its Thursday morning edition. "Bush Projections Show Sharp Drop in Budget Surplus," the New York Times chimed in. "White House sees Shrinking Surplus," the Los Angeles Times proclaimed.

And the naysaying wasn't limited to what the White House could dismiss as liberal news outlets. The headline from the less ideological USA Today reads "Parties debate 'lost' surplus" -- hardly a Bush bash, but nowhere near accepting the administration's party line that all is well. Even the Washington Times, a Bush-friendly paper, viewed the surplus story as bad news, headlining their take on the numbers "Surplus half of April estimate."

All of which is a lot closer to what senior Democrats have been saying. The argument advanced by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and other party bigwigs is that Bush used fuzzy math to come up with the cash to justify his $1.35 trillion tax cut, and is doing the same thing to cover the collateral damage to the nation's pocketbook.

Daniels chalked up the Democratic doom-speak to "a little political horseplay" that Bush and company will easily overcome when the serious business of government gets back underway in the fall. But it's clear in the early goings that the White House is getting whipped in the surplus-rhetoric wars. They'd better come up with something new to say in September or Bush will be fighting his budget battles uphill.

And don't miss Bush reportedly tapping Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Myers is a Star Warrior, a big fan of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's vision of space-based defense systems, a plan that riles the Russians and upsets many of America's European allies. Bush's pick could signal that the administration is moving ahead with plans to scrap the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, which effectively forbids the militarization of space.

In other administration news, the Bush team was slow to report that Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien blasted the president in a Tuesday telephone call about American tariffs on Canadian timber. Canadian papers carried the story on Wednesday, and, though he has since backed down, Chretien's account of the talk was patronizing toward the president. "It's too bad, but if you have free trade, you have free trade," Chretien said he told Bush. "And I explained it very clearly."

When White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked why American reporters didn't hear about the call from him on Tuesday, Fleischer replied, "There has never been a commitment that every time the president speaks with a foreign leader, we're going to announce it."

Thursday's schedule: The president has no public events scheduled for his 20th day on vacation in Crawford, Texas.

-- Alicia Montgomery

This day in Bush history

Aug. 23, 1998: The Houston Chronicle reports that Texas Gov. George W. Bush is keeping his comments about the erupting Monica Lewinsky scandal fairly low-key, and was chafing at the media attention to his own business and personal affairs as speculation grew about his White House ambitions. But Bush didn't declare that a politician had an absolute right to privacy. The line between a leader's public and private life was "up to the American people to determine," according to 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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