Going To War For The Economy

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Bush knows the economy can sink him, and that until he makes a decision on Iraq, things can't get much better

When George W. Bush sat down with his speechwriters two weeks ago, he knew he had a problem on the home front: his $695 billion tax-cut plan had met with skepticism from key Republican lawmakers, hostility from most Democrats and ambivalence from the public. He wanted to give a speech, he said, that would "walk people through" his plan. "We'd explained it to the Chicago economics club," says one Bush aide. "Now he wanted to explain it to regular people."

But Bush's speechwriters were having trouble understanding what he wanted. He sent back draft after draft. The morning of the speech he was still dissatisfied. "Watch and listen closely," he chided aides, "so you'll get this right." In a Kennesaw, Ga., high school gym, he delivered a skillful, largely ad-libbed 40-minute seminar on the virtues of his tax cuts as if he had been teaching the topic for 20 years down the hall. But almost no one heard it besides the rapt audience inside the gym. Terrorism alerts and the conflict with Iraq have consigned the President's domestic agenda to the back pages. "It's all war," he told a senior staff meeting last week. "Until this gets resolved, it's all about Iraq."

But that's not all bad, insist White House officials. Sure, the likelihood of war and the threat of terrorism have squeezed the economy. War jitters contributed to the nine-year low registered last week in the key consumer-confidence index—and to the all-time lows in the polls for Bush's economic performance. But the war may also be the White House's way out of the problem. Bush advisers say the economy will surge after the war, as businesses start investing and consumers start spending. And victory in war can jump-start a President's stalled poll numbers. With a postwar mandate, say advisers, congressional opposition to his tax cuts will melt away. "History shows," a top Bush adviser tells Time, "once the shooting starts, the public rallies around the President. And once it's over, this President will use his political capital to get things done at home."

That, of course, is the best-case scenario. Bush's father squandered his popularity after winning the first Gulf War, a political mistake the son has vowed not to repeat. The President knows he can't risk being seen to care more about Iraq than Indiana, which is why he has ordered his domestic lieutenants to focus on the economy even after missiles are launched.

They're being led by John Snow, the new Treasury Secretary, who is putting his skills as a former lobbyist to good use on trips to Capitol Hill, where key G.O.P. Senators like Iowa's Chuck Grassley and Ohio's George Voinovich have suggested the President's plan won't pass without big changes. During downtime on the Hill last week he started cold-calling lawmakers, dispensing with the custom of scheduled conversations. "John Snow here," he bellowed out to bewildered interns.

Snow was also involved in helping corral the business lobby behind Bush's plan—particularly its controversial centerpiece, the $374 billion elimination of the tax on shareholders' dividends. In a meeting with the President last week, Snow impressed him with a postcard Morgan Stanley is sending to its clients detailing how much they would save under the plan. But will it work? As one senior official says, "It's a piece of cake convincing a person who relies on dividend income. But how do you convey it to the lunch-pail guy?" The Snow Show has been playing to far more skeptical audiences beyond Wall Street and Washington. And the effort may also face a challenge from a former insider: New York City publishers say Snow's predecessor, Paul O'Neill, is involved in a book project that will be critical of the Bush team's economic stewardship.

Meanwhile, an easy victory over Saddam may still not deliver what Bush needs and may contribute instead to the government's financial burdens. The budget deficit, already more than $300 billion, will probably grow by at least an additional $50 billion to $100 billion to pay for the combat, the cooperation of allies and the beginning of a multiyear commitment to rebuild Iraq.

Bush aides say the deficit doesn't worry them because it remains a small percentage of the $10 trillion economy. "Even if it is 500 (billion), so what?" asks one, adding that the public is willing to put up with deficits to pay for security at home and abroad. But economic recoveries don't matter in politics until voters actually feel them. At the moment, neither the economy nor Bush's poll numbers are where they need to be to ensure his re-election. Not to worry, an adviser to the President reassures: "We've got plenty of time. Plenty of time." That's what Bush's father thought too.