Speech wasn't a hit but a Bush rerun Nation's needs differ from four years ago


"The defining event of the Bush presidency," is how last night's State of the Union speech was promoted in a recent Bush-Quayle re-election campaign memo. If so, his remains a presidency without definition.

President Bush did not even try to project a new vision of where he wants to lead the nation. He seemed to admit as much halfway through his address, when he said "the test of a plan isn't whether it's called new or dazzling."

And if boosting public confidence would help trigger an economic turnaround, Americans may not have heard enough inspiring rhetoric to raise their spirits. Mr. Bush's lengthy, grab bag of a speech was more like a collection of greatest hits from past orations, including his own.

Twice he warned that the recession "will not stand," as if he could dispel hard times by reprising the line he used against Iraq's Saddam Hussein; the tepid response from Congress could be a warning sign of how little magic those words convey, less than one year after the gulf war's end.

What Mr. Bush did bring to his speech, however, was a little bit of something for everyone.

In that respect, at least, it may not have been a bad way to begin a re-election campaign, which is what last night was really all about.

Voters, this year, are demanding answers from the politicians. And Mr. Bush showed last night that he's got a very long list, one that is carefully tailored to appeal to the groups he must pull together if he is to win re-election in November.

There were a number of juicy tidbits for Republican special interests, for instance. His proposal to "modify the Passive Loss Rule for active real estate investors" drew lengthy applause. When he repeated his plan for a capital gains tax cut -- the vast bulk of which would go to taxpayers earning more than $200,000 a year -- Republican congressmen leapt to their feet and cheered lustily.

Mr. Bush waited surprisingly long to utter the words "middle class," the magic catch phrase of Campaign '92. But his speech was loaded with goodies for that decisive voter group, which is feeling stressed-out and unloved these days. There were cuts in withholding taxes and credits for families with children and tax breaks for first-home buyers and student-loan repayers, and more.

For poor children he offered a bigger Head Start. For the jobless, compassion and extended federal benefits. That brought Democratic congressmen like Chicago's Dan Rostenkowski to their feet, and a wry smile to Mr. Bush's face. "Well, at last," the president cracked, arching his eyebrow.

For a man whose political career was supposedly hanging in the balance -- his poll ratings were at an all-time low as he stood before the nation last night -- Mr. Bush looked remarkably cool and in command. He began with a self-deprecating joke about vomiting on the Japanese prime minister. By the time he got around to scolding the assembled Democrats, he looked positively smug.

He also took a shot at his Republican primary opponent, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, while never mentioning his name. Rephrasing the famous line by Barry Goldwater, godfather of modern Republican conservatism ("Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue"), Mr. Bush warned against a turning away from America's obligations in the world, saying, "Strength in the pursuit of peace is no vice. Isolationism in the pursuit of security is no virtue."

In some ways, it was a throwback to his performance in his 1988 Republican Convention acceptance speech, when Mr. Bush, then 17 points down in the polls to Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, surprised the experts with a confident and personal delivery. (No coincidence: The coach for both speeches was the same man, Roger Ailes, a Republican media consultant.) Last night, in an apparent effort to project an image of warmth and sincerity, he used the word "heart" a half-dozen times.

But for the most part, his speech was a reminder of how different 1992 is from 1988 for Mr. Bush.

His task then was to step out of Ronald Reagan's shadow and prove that he was his "own man." Today, he's a familiar part of our lives. When he spoke, twice, of "Barbara," perhaps his greatest political asset this campaign year, no further elaboration was needed.

Mr. Bush's political challenge, as he prepares to formally declare his candidacy for re-election in two weeks, is at once both easier and more difficult than the one he confronted four years ago.

As an incumbent, he's well aware that the election will be a referendum on his performance as president. That judgment, it seems obvious right now, will depend largely on whether the economy is clearly recovering by the second half of the year.

The Bush economic strategy -- and by extension the president's political fate -- isn't really dependent on the initiatives he threw out last night. Instead, he will succeed or fail on the strength of steps that have already been taken, such as the cuts in interest rates engineered by the Federal Reserve Board.

His economic approach is, like the Hippocratic oath, to first do no harm. By avoiding any sweeping election-year fixes, and signaling that in advance, he soothed Wall Street's nerves (the ,, stock market hit a record high yesterday). It's a stay-the-course strategy that is not without risk. He's betting that the same economic forecasters who were wrong about the length of the ongoing recession are right when they say recovery is just

around the corner.

His package of economic incentives -- which contains more than a few of the gimmicks he had claimed he would avoid -- is an opening gambit in the election-year bidding war for public support.

It isn't his final offer, but it's a decent start.

It might also be worth remembering that it takes two to make an election. As low as Mr. Bush may have fallen, for the moment at least, the Democrats seem to be sliding underneath.

The George Bush who showed up last night wasn't the floating embarrassment of the past few months. If he failed to meet the exalted expectations he and his supporters created for him, he also served notice that it would be a mistake to underestimate him this political year.

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