George W. Bush

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Sounds good: President George W. Bush gives a thumbs-up to a local marching band

Why We Chose Him:

We wondered if it might be too easy.

Too obvious, to put up a POTUS who scheduled his own SOTU (State of the Union) after just a month in office. But the man did give a heck of a budget sales pitch — much better, a host of skeptics are griping, than the actual budget that accompanied it — and for a week his $1.96 trillion shopping list for 2002 (and the 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax cut that sprouts out of it) did fair battle with the Brothers Rodham for the hearts and minds of news editors across the land. Even if it was barely a draw.

Too easy? This was the last easy week of the Bush presidency.

Monday, the anticipation — and the low expectations that are clearly part of Bush's formula. Tuesday, the payoff, a long, funny, aw-shucks tour de force that actually sounded like Bush could have written it himself (unlike that beautiful but somewhat ill-fitting inaugural). Wednesday morning, the budget hit Congress and the speech reviews hit the papers; Bush's approval ratings, and the approval ratings for the tax cut, went up among the largely Republican viewers. Thursday, the budget was the major papers' top story of choice, and in the House, Republicans sprinted forward with the tax-cut ball.

The Bill factor

Yet there's still that last president keeping Bush's Q-ratings down, and while that's catnip for Bush's personal mojo, this was also the week Bush's agenda could have used a more agnostic spotlight. With ex–White House counsel Beth Nolan's piano-key smile lighting up CNN for days on end, Bush's two-day, five-state sales tour made barely a blip on the cable-news radar, and when the Pardongate hearings took a break, there was Greenspan before the House for two mornings this week. And besides hogging the airwaves, the Fed chairman has of late rediscovered his gift for burying his soundbites in a pile of qualifiers — just when the Bush team could have used another headlining show of decipherable support.

This is the wrong mix for a tax cut that badly needs the kind of unquestioning publicity that only a heavily covered presidential message-tour can bestow. Instead, Bush's appearances have been consigned to quick news clips and local audiences in Little Rock, while on the back pages of the New York Times the academic nitpickers have their way with a budget plan that, for all its broad philosophical appeal, is rather vulnerable to close-reading skeptics.

All this leaves Bush still facing a gap between his likability and his credibility, and with his presidency staked on a $1.6 trillion tax cut that has yet to acquire the kind of public momentum to scare Senate Democrats into submission. A public Republican "high bid" — which would have allowed Bush to cast his number as a compromise — has not materialized. Without a serious change in the wind, Bush's spinners and negotiators alike will have to sweat to make sure the final number is sufficiently closer to $1.6 trillion than the Democrats' $900 billion for their president to claim victory. No failure would approach the radioactivity of Clinton's HillaryCare disaster, but for Bush, the line between bipartisanship and weakness is fine indeed.

Deserving of attention

These were the days our Person of the Week made his move to take back the White House from the Clinton-addicted news culture, and only partially succeeded. Which leaves Americans still wallowing in a still-kicking Pardongate story that won't change their lives a whit, and deprived of what as citizens they (and Bush) probably deserve — an unobstructed view of a President who intends to change their lives quite a bit.

Such is the enduring car-wreck magnetism of the Man from Hope, and the enduring appeal to newswriters of a story that doesn't require a calculator.

But this is a competition that George W. Bush and his calculator eventually need to win.