Washington President Bush, whose father lost the White House during bad economic times, views America's financial slump as a potential threat to his own presidency. He hopes to use the fall budget debate and soothing words to convince Americans that he cares.
That is the consensus of top presidential advisers as Bush, fresh from a 26-day respite from Washington, tackles a crowded fall agenda: 13 government spending bills, four major foreign policy events, a new values initiative and legislation dealing with education, patients' rights and trade.
When Bush returned to the White House late last week, a new round of bad economic news sat on his desk. Consumers tightened their spending habits in July, even as tax-rebate checks were headed their way. Stocks tumbled.
"I'm deeply worried about the working families all across the country," Bush said, testing his new rhetoric.
His advisers said the president plans to use the bully pulpit to express sympathy with hard-bitten workers, and the budget debate to shape his economic message. He is borrowing time, hoping his tax-cut package turns the economy around before midterm elections in 2002, when control of Congress is at stake.
A top adviser to his father during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bush watched helplessly as then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas portrayed the incumbent as insensitive to working Americans while the country struggled out of its last recession.
Friends and advisers say the son has vowed to avoid his father's plight.
Thus, Bush has embarked a fall campaign to prove to voters that he is working on the economy while improving their lives in ways no accountant can measure better schools, stronger communities and safe retirement benefits.
"Nothing is more important in the president's opinion than to get the economy going and growing," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. Borrowing a phrase from Clinton's campaign, Fleischer said Bush would "focus like a laser beam" on the economy and other priorities
Bush will carry that message to several states in September, starting with a Labor Day trip to Michigan and Wisconsin to chat with union members.
A White House memo distributed to GOP operatives across the country says: "Remember to make this point to everyone you talk to today the president has taken immediate action on his strong economic recovery plan to cut taxes to get working families immediate help, to pay off historic levels of debt, and to increase trade and create American jobs to sell more goods and services to the world."
"The president's partisan opponents have no economic recovery plan whatsoever."
The sharp language reflects the intensity of budget talks in Washington.
New projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office show that $9 billion of Social Security reserves will be tapped this year because of the shrinking surplus. Bush promised during the campaign not to touch Social Security money, but his budget director now dismisses the "lock box" as a symbolic device.
"For Democrats, saving the Social Security surplus is not a symbolic goal it is a commitment," Democratic congressional leaders told Bush in a letter last week.
Bush's accountants say the economy will grow just fast enough to leave the Social Security trust fund untouched. His political strategists say their polls show that most voters never believed there was a Social Security surplus anyhow, limiting the political risks to Bush.
The president will be quick this fall to challenge congressional spending that he can cast as a threat to school, military and Social Security payments, aides said. Vetoing a spending bill or criticizing GOP lawmakers' pork-barrel projects would draw the most attention to his cause, they said.
Even so, the strategists said they believe that the budget debate could matter little in the long run; Bush's political fate and GOP prospects in 2002 will hinge almost exclusively on how well the economy is doing a year from now. The economy trumps all other issues, even the Social Security surplus.
"Americans are more focused on the economy than arcane budget games," said a White House spokesman, Jim Wilkinson.
Several Bush aides said Republicans could lose control of the House if the economy does not snap out of its stall by this time next year. They are gambling that it will, and predict Bush's tax-cut plan will be credited for the turnaround.
Also on Bush's fall to-do list:
l Meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox this week for the first state visit of the Bush presidency. Bush makes his first visit to the United Nations, travels to Asia and meets Russian President Vladimir Putin.
lEmbrace a campaign against gossip in schools and workplaces, one in a series of community service and character initiatives that Bush hopes will endear him to suburban female voters. Strategists compare the package to President Clinton's smaller scale initiatives, such as supporting school uniforms, that helped him win re-election.
l Modify his public appearances to make Bush look more approachable. Fewer scripts and more question-and-answer sessions with voters are in the works.