fred barnes

Honeymoon ends Tuesday with a big splash

he White House doesn’t quite know what to call President Bush’s speech to Congress on Feb. 7. It’s not a State of the Union address. Some Bush aides refer to it as the budget priority speech,’ since the president will present highlights of his first federal budget. And the next day, he’ll dispatch the 00′ budget in all its mind-numbing detail to Capitol Hill. A more popular title around the White House, given that the Senate and House will convene together to hear Bush, is the joint session speech.’ At least that’s the working title used by the Bush speechwriting staff. A more accurate name, however, might be the end of the honeymoon speech.’

In his first month as president, Bush fared extraordinarily well in Washington, wooing if not wowing nearly everyone and defying expectations that his honeymoon would be shorter than Darva Conger’s. Yes, he took some potshots from congressional Democrats over his $1.6 trillion tax cut. And two Senate Republicans expressed qualms about the Bush tax plan. But the president was able to lay the political and economic groundwork for the plan’s passage, aided by Federal Reserve boss Alan Greenspan and surging surplus numbers.

Now comes the hard part, the 00′ budget, which Bush hasn’t even begun to sell. He will propose a 4 percent (or less) hike in spending, which may sound like a lot outside the Beltway, but in Washington it’s bound to be viewed as Draconian. And the 4 percent increase will seem especially small compared with the 00′ budget.

There’s another problem: reprogramming. This is the shifting of money from one agency to another, allowing some like the Education Department to get more funds while others, such as the Labor Department, face cuts in their projected growth.

House Republicans, in a series of private listening sessions,’ accepted all this calmly. But going along with reprogramming in theory is one thing, notes representative Roy Blunt, the deputy GOP whip. Swallowing actual cuts is another.

Republicans, though, are not Bush’s problem. Democrats and the media are. Democratic attacks are utterly predictable. Agencies whose budgets don’t rise faster than the rate of inflation will be characterized as victims of Bush’s tax cut. Democrats will say Bush had to trim critically needed spending to accommodate a tax cut that’s too large and favors the rich.

Also, Bush’s claim to be a compassionate conservative will be sneered at.

Would a compassionate leader really chop programs during an economic downturn marked by large layoffs? For Democrats, that’s a rhetorical question. And of course all the spending constituencies who benefit from budget growth will weigh in.

Press attacked for being soft

The press poses every bit as serious a threat. Reporters have been remarkably kind to Bush in his first weeks as president. For this, they’ve been harshly criticized in both media and left-wing political circles.

Chances are, they’re ready to change their tune, and the budget will give them an opportunity. They will have actual budget numbers for specific programs to deal with, making it easier to point out the victims of Bush’s budget. Anyone who remembers the shock and horror with which the media treated President Reagan’s modest spending cuts knows well how reporters can project an image of presidential coldheartedness.

Yet the White House seems oblivious to the possibility of an abrupt end to the honeymoon. Neither Bush nor his aides have flinched on the budget. This stems, I suspect, from a combination of steadfastness and innocence. Mitch Daniels, the budget director, has gone about his work of holding down spending without interference. He sent some spending proposals back to agencies because they didn’t follow his instructions to justify any new expenditures (even ones based on inflation) beyond last year’s budget.

Daniels says the budget will be “realistic but restrained.”‘ Among other things, Daniels told the Associated Press he wants to kill a healthy fraction’ of the earmarks’ for local projects that members of Congress stuck in the 00′ budget.

Mary Matalin, the refugee from Crossfire who is now Vice President Cheney’s political adviser, says she doesn’t know anyone at the White House who frets about the end of the honeymoon. “It’s not a topic of conversation,” she adds. Nor should it be, says Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political strategist.

So Bush won’t begin selling his budget until his address to Congress Tuesday night, followed by a couple of days of events outside Washington. Not a moment too soon.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard. His address is 1150 17th St. N.W., Fifth Floor, Washington, D.C. 20036.