A Credibility Problem


Will tonight's State of the Union address restore George W. Bush's political fortunes?

Only a few weeks ago, that would have seemed an extremely unlikely question. Fresh off the Republican victory in the midterm elections, President Bush seemed invincible and it's amazing how many stories you still read about his immense, unshakeable popularity.

But anyone who takes the trouble to look at the numbers knows that the thrill is gone. Mr. Bush's approval ratings have plunged over the last two months. A year ago he was, indeed, immensely popular; right now he's not significantly more popular than he was before Sept. 11.

Other polls suggest that the public is particularly disenchanted with Mr. Bush's economic policy. Most voters no longer believe that his tax cuts are effective at creating jobs, and many also believe that his policies favor the wealthy and large corporations, rather than people like themselves. (Class warfare!)

Still, polls can shift as they did, suddenly, after Sept. 11. Can tonight's speech do the trick?

We can be sure that some pundits will acclaim the speech as bold and brilliant; they would do that if he read from "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." Whether their praise, and the theatrics of the occasion, will turn things around is anyone's guess. A lot depends on whether Mr. Bush is held accountable for the promises he made in his last State of the Union address.

For there was more to that speech than the axis of evil (a phrase, by the way, that has vanished from Mr. Bush's vocabulary, along with the name of that guy he promised to bring in dead or alive). He assured those who worried about red ink that "our budget will run a deficit that will be small and short-lived." He offered comfort for those who remembered his father's "jobless recovery," which felt like a continuing recession: "When America works, America prospers, so my economic security plan can be summed up in one word: jobs."

Fast-forward a year. We now know that the "small" budget deficit will rise above $300 billion, and stay there. Even the administration's own, ever-optimistic budget officials now concede that we face deficits as far as the eye can see. Meanwhile, payrolls continue to decline; since the working-age population keeps rising, it's becoming ever harder for ordinary Americans to get jobs, or keep them.

And there's a good chance things will get a lot worse: with markets sliding, consumers wilting, businesses fearful about the effects of war and oil prices rising, the pieces are in place for a full-blown double-dip recession. And the second dip would take us much further down than the first.

So can Mr. Bush convince us that his latest tax cut is just the tonic the economy needs?

There are several reasons to doubt whether he can pull it off. For one thing, economists outside the administration, even those who always find ways to praise whatever he proposes, can't see what this tax cut has to do with the economy's immediate problems. This has led to a striking dissonance between what administration officials say on TV where it's still all about jobs and what they say when speaking to knowledgeable audiences. In background briefings for reporters, at the Davos conference this past weekend and wherever else they encounter people who might actually know something about the numbers, officials now pooh-pooh concerns about the state of the job market. Never mind that, they say, our plan is all about increasing long-run growth. Um, but what about "economic security"?

The administration's credibility problem is made worse by the high casualty rate among top economic officials, and the uninspiring quality of their replacements. Today is the first day of hearings for John Snow, the administration's choice for Treasury secretary. One official I spoke to was rueful: "I thought Paul O'Neill wasn't suited to being Treasury secretary; he'd have been better off running a railroad. Now they've picked a man who ran a railroad."

But that's not why he was chosen, according to CBS Market Watch: "He was picked because he's a lobbyist, a schmoozer, a master salesman" and a member of no less than nine country clubs.

Still, nobody razzle-dazzles 'em like Mr. Bush. Tonight we'll see if he's good enough to make us forget last year's promises.

Originally published in The New York Times, 1.28.03