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Tuesday, April 15

As war shifts focus, Bush turns attention to the home front

By Chuck Raasch | GNS

WASHINGTON - One of George W. Bush's most recognizable traits has been his willingness to spend political capital. He showed that side again Tuesday as he attempted to segue from the war in Iraq to economic troubles at home.

The president is hoping history does not repeat itself even as Democrats bank that it will. On a day in which the income-tax deadline came and the war in Iraq seemed to be settling into a long-term slog, Bush used the bully pulpit of high popularity and its high symbolism to push another massive round of tax cuts he hopes will jump-start a troubled economy. The timing is aimed at the 2004 election, whose opening votes come in less than nine months.

Bush's father's experience, losing an election after successfully prosecuting a war, has become such a historical touchstone for the current Bush administration that the son can do little without inviting comparison to the father.

Sen. John Breaux, D-La., an ally turned opponent on Bush's tax cuts, said Tuesday that the current president ``obviously remembers'' what happened when the first President Bush was ``very popular with a bad economy.''

This Bush, Breaux said, is using his popularity - 71 percent in the most recent USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll - and ``doing the right thing'' in terms of timing by ``spending his political capital'' now.

But the problem for Bush is that he is trying to spend it on a plan that has weak support in Congress. Even some Republicans intensely loyal to him on the war oppose the size and focus of Bush's proposed $726 billion tax cut over 10 years. Democrats and some Republicans favor tax cuts about half that size and want to head off Bush's plan to wipe out taxes on dividends, which Democrats have charged would favor the rich.

Breaux, an ally on Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut that passed in 2001, said Tuesday that ``political popularity can only carry a bad idea so far.'' But Bush, in a highly symbolic speech to small-business owners at the White House, vowed to push for at least $550 billion in tax cuts. And he drew a rhetorical connection between the focus and successes of his administration's plan to liberate Iraq and drive Saddam Hussein out of power. With dramatic battlefield images being replaced with the more mundane and perhaps more difficult task of rebuilding Iraq under a new government, Bush also has turned to the nettlesome economic problems that have dogged his administration at home.

The United States faced ``two great and immediate'' tasks, Bush said. One was to continue to confront the ``gathering threats'' in the war on terrorism, and the other was to produce a ``vigorous and growing'' economy.

``These remain the highest priorities of my administration and there is no doubt we will meet these priorities,'' Bush said.

Not coincidentally, Bush's timing parallels a shift in popular opinion.

In its latest polling released Tuesday, Gallup said the percentage of Americans most concerned about the economy and jobs had gone up from 37 percent in March to 42 percent this week. But those saying the war in Iraq worried them the most fell from 29 percent last month to 16 percent now.

Bush said his ``pro-growth'' package is ``even more urgent today'' than when he first sent it to Congress in January. He claims his tax cuts would put more money in people's pockets immediately and produce 1.2 million new jobs by the end of 2004. A family of four making $40,000 a year, Bush said, would see their federal income tax load drop from $1,178 to $45.

No matter what happens to his plan or to the economy, Bush has attacked one factor that dogged his father's presidency after the senior Bush led a coalition that forced Saddam Hussein's armies out of Kuwait.

After that war, the elder Bush was seen as aloof and distant from the suffering of Americans in a sharp economic recession that followed. Simple symbolic gestures, like buying socks to illustrate how spending could boost economic revival, boomeranged on him.

But by pushing another tax plan, even one that might end up being half as big as he wants or playing into charges that he favors the rich, this Bush is appearing to be more engaged. Bush is also dispatching more Cabinet secretaries and top aides to talk about the economy all over the country.

And on Tuesday, George W. Bush already declared victory of sorts.

The debate, he said, is ``not if we have a (stimulus) package, but how big will the package be?''