The Bush Address: Birth of a Salesman?

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President Bush addresses a joint session of Congress

In the second first big speech of his month-old presidency, George W. Bush actually opened with a joke.

"I thank you for your invitation to speak here tonight, to outline a new budget and a new direction for our country. I know Congress had to formally invite me, and it could have been a close vote... and I'm grateful Vice President Cheney was here to break the tie."

This was the longest speech of Bush's political career — at 49 minutes, even longer and more detailed than anybody expected — and nobody knew what to call it. Too early in the term, perhaps, to be called a State of the Union address (though apparently the Senate historian OK'd that handle). All the TV chyrons went with "Address to Congress," and that was closer.

But this was more — a reintroduction, and a badly needed one for a new president with exactly one White House press conference to his name who'd been tiptoeing around Washington for a month while the old Godzilla's last steps were still toppling buildings. This was the speech that had to be good enough, and Bush enough, to take the White House back.

And of course it was Bush's big sales presentation, for the budget and the $1.6 trillion tax cut that pretty much everybody in America, including some widely publicized congressional Republicans, are a little leery of. Bush's task was to make the biggest tax cut in 20 years sound like it fit in with all the acquired political tastes of the last 10 — fiscal discipline, debt reduction, and a feel for Medicare, Social Security, health care, education.

For all these, Bush came prepared. He took the microphone at 9:10 p.m. ET, opened with that bit of self-deprecation that is his political bread and butter, and surprised some more pundits by going right at his predecessor's jugular.

"On the steps of this building, I pledged to honor our Constitution and laws, and I asked you to join me in setting a tone of civility and respect in Washington. I hope America is noticing the difference."

Bush's vaunted bipartisan charm comes from his ability to address both parties of Congress and criticize them collegially, as if the squabbling, vendetta-stained parties he's really talking about were just voted out of office yesterday. He's selling a fresh start, and to prove it, when he got down to budget business he spent the first handful of applause lines on the other guys. He wouldn't be killing any budgetary darlings, and in the nutshell preamble to the next 40-odd minutes, Bush put his cherished tax cut in the same spot the Democrats would have: At the end of the shopping list, after milk, eggs and entitlements.

"My budget is reasonable and it is responsible. It meets our obligations and funds our growing needs. We increase spending next year for Social Security and Medicare and other entitlement programs by $81 billion. We have increased spending for discretionary programs by a very responsible 4 percent, above the rate of inflation. My plan pays down an unprecedented amount of our national debt, and then when money is still left over, my plan returns it to the people who earned it in the first place."

Echoes of Clinton
Bush could have stopped right there, substance-wise, after five minutes. That was the plan, that was the pitch, and if America had tuned out right then, well, certainly this Bush could understand that better than anybody. But he'd gotten the Congress and the Cabinet and a "tax family" and the mayor of Philadelphia together for this, and he'd reserved the air time on all the networks, and he had a presidential-type address to give.

So he did what Bill Clinton would have done — say it all again, with details and pint-sized porkers. The Democratic darlings came first. And the tax cut became as an afterthought. Education got the bulk of time, and Bush made sure we heard that it was his first love (yes, he likes teachers so much he married one) and his biggest outlay. "The highest percentage increase in our budget should go to our children's education. Education is my top priority and by supporting this budget, you will make it yours as well."

Tough to complain about that. Medicare and health care: "My budget dedicates $238 billion to Medicare next year alone, enough to fund all current programs and to begin a new prescription drug benefit for low-income seniors. No senior in America should have to choose between buying food and buying prescriptions." Social Security: "My budget protects all $2.6 trillion of the Social Security surplus for Social Security and for Social Security alone."

The military: just a few bucks this year, for the one Pentagon program that nobody can deny — the actual soldiers. "I am requesting $5.7 billion in increased military pay and benefits, and health care and housing." And a billion for the veterans too.

A little for the environment — toxic brownfield cleanup, and the land and water conservation fund, and $4.9 billion over five years for the national parks, but nothing about the Alaskan oilfields (that got rolled into the energy program, at the end).

Some for the "poor and disadvantaged," and that was where Philadelphia mayor John Street came in, sitting next to the First Lady by virtue of his love of faith-based initiatives and his membership in the Democratic party. Bush even set aside a whole $700 million — over 10 years — for something new called the "Federal Compassion Capital Fund." And to make sure the country could see his race-blind heart, Bush mentioned that just today he'd gotten John Ashcroft started on the problem of racial profiling.

The payoff pitch
And then, almost without warning, Bush — or his speechwriter, anyway — hit his showman's stride. Because as soon as he wrapped up again, and closed with "our surpluses are big enough that there is still money left over" — you could feel it coming. Here comes the tax cut, right?

Not just yet. "Many of you have talked about the need to pay down our national debt. I have listened, and I agree. My budget proposal pays down an unprecedented amount of public debt. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to act now, and I hope you will join me to pay down $2 trillion in debt during the next 10 years." Right. Good idea. Very prudent. Now the tax cut, right?

Not just yet. First, a trillion-dollar "contingency fund" over 10 years, for emergencies. "That is one trillion additional reasons you can feel comfortable supporting this budget." Wow. He's putting some in the bank. What a guy. Now the tax cut, right?

Almost. First, the sum-up again: "We have increased our budget at a responsible 4 percent, we have funded our priorities, we have paid down all the available debt, we have prepared for contingencies — and we still have money left over." Then the bad old Democratic way: "Last year, government spending shot up 8 percent. That is far more than our economy grew, far more than personal income grew and far more than the rate of inflation. If you continue on that road, you will spend the surplus and have to dip into Social Security to pay other bills."

Ooh, that sounds bad. Whatever can we do?

Now, the tax cut.

"See, the growing surplus exists because taxes are too high and government is charging more than it needs. The people of America have been overcharged and on their behalf, I am here to ask for a refund.

"Some say my tax plan is too big." Here Bush got a large and apparently unexpected burst of applause from Democrats that seemed to really jolt him.

"Others say it is too small." The Republicans' turn, a bigger, lustier throaty roar from all the cigar-chompers in the room.

By then Bush had grasped the comic, or at least fairytale, possibilities, and, after a short pause, delivered the last line with a smile. "I respectfully disagree. This tax relief is just right."

The applause was explosive. Bush had delivered most of the night's speech competently and without magic. Its success was in its looping, reinforcing structure, which allowed him to leave his listeners with a clear memory of his priorities without having to leave any particular phrase tattooed on their brains. The loftiest language came after that rousing tax-cut sale, in 10 minutes of rhetorical flourishes touching on how all the best things in life — from free trade to internationalism to missile defense to a military restructuring — in fiscal 2001 would be free.

Now to close the deal
In the end, Bush botched an inordinate number of those phrases, even for him. After that high note had been struck, one got the sense that Bush's brain had partially shut down, that he spent the last 10 minutes of the speech thinking about how well that tax-cut bit had gone over.

What a moment it had been, in which the President of the United States briefly turned into Cab Calloway, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey was caught on camera with his eyes welling up at the sheer fun of it all.

The next few weeks will tell if Bush closed the sale — the numbers in Congress, and the low wattage of Dick Gephardt's response afterward, say he'll probably get most of what he wants. After Tuesday night, and that Goldilocks moment, he'll be able to claim due credit for getting it.

Somewhere, Bill Clinton must be just a little bit jealous of the way the new guy can work a room.