Economic Forecast: Snow

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Treasury Secretary John Snow just completed his first workweek. You may not have noticed — which is exactly the reaction the administration was hoping for. After former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's regular gaffes and colorful statements that spooked markets and grabbed headlines, the new guy's easy entry onto the job was reason enough for celebration. "He never left message once," said a senior administration aide after Snow's two-day congressional testimony on the President's budget. "They tried every trick in the book. He never left message."

That was step one. Now for the hard part: actually making news by selling the President's $674 billion growth package. Snow, who headed up railroad giant CSX for the past 14 years, will take the lead selling a program that the public so far has not embraced — and which makes even some senior Republicans a little bit nervous.

The new secretary is getting right to work. This Saturday Snow gave a 26-page Powerpoint presentation on the president's plan to a standing-room only crowd of congressional Republicans at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

The contents of the fancy slide show demonstrate how tough a sell the President's plan has proven: a major portion of the presentation has a distinctly defensive tone. According to administration sources, Snow's first point to the group was that the last Bush tax cut didn't sap the $5.4 trillion surplus of 2001; rather, the slow economy did. He then armed his listeners with a shield against the inevitable charge that the President's new tax cuts will swell the deficit. He argued that when the cuts are enacted, the $300 billion deficit will shrink as a result of new economic growth. Other slides prompted members to defend against Democratic arguments that the President's economic package and tax plan favor the wealthy, illustrating instead how lower income families will benefit.

The presentation was not entirely devoted to mounting a defense. Snow also provided a strong argument for why the President's plan grows jobs and why it — and not the smaller, more targeted Democratic proposals — is necessary now. Some in the Republican audience were skeptical about the central element in the plan — Bush's proposal to remove the tax on dividends — but Snow held his ground. "He liked being in the mix," says one audience member. "That's a big difference." O'Neill, say those who worked with him, never would have bothered to schmooze and endure the give-and-take with Congress. And showing respect for the men and women who have to pass the President's plan can only help the administration.

But nervous Republicans on the Hill want more than flashy presentations. They need the administration to start making the case to the public — their constituents — in a more forceful way. The White House knows this, and next week the new economic team will take the field to make the pitch. Snow will take the President's message on the road, visiting Wall Street bankers Tuesday, joining the President Wednesday to promote job creation, and spreading the word in Pennsylvania and Michigan later in the week. Steve Friedman, the new head of the National Economic Council, Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao will be out there selling, too. A host of undersecretaries will also fan across the nation visiting local Chambers of Commerce.

The administration's first crew of economic advisers was criticized for not being able to sell the President's policies to the public. In fact, running down the economic team became a kind of policy in itself for some in the administration trying to insulate the President against charges of inaction. Now a new gang, headed by Snow, is on the case — and on the road. And with war looming and heightened threats of domestic terrorism scaring consumers and intimidating business decision-makers, they could face a very long road indeed.