Now comes the hard part for President Bush. To establish credibility as chief executive, he has to exercise strong leadership in the federal budget process, enforcing his view of where to spend tax dollars and where to cut on a Congress focused mainly on spending.
A dramatic illustration of the difficulty Mr. Bush faces came with the earthquake that rumbled through the Pacific Northwest last Wednesday - the same day the President sent Congress his budget, which would eliminate a federal program used by the city of Seattle during the past three years to strengthen public buildings and bridges against the ravages of such tremors. The administration's budget document argues that the $25 million “Project Impact” program, slated for abolition as part of a 17 percent cut in the budget of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, “has not proven effective.”
“It worked in Seattle,” a FEMA spokeswoman said in explaining that Project Impact was a major reason the city escaped major damage.
Such arguments undoubtedly will resound during the budget process, albeit at less than 6.8 on the Richter scale, as supporters of various programs comb through Mr. Bush's spending blueprint. The document is conspicuously lacking in solid numbers, but it appears to favor the departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, State, Health and Human Services, Treasury, Defense, and Veterans Affairs. Targeted for cutbacks are Transportation, Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, Commerce, Labor, Interior, Energy, and Justice.
Cutbacks in any domestic program are going to be hard for Mr. Bush to justify to a friendly Republican-led Congress, especially given rosy forecasts of $5.6 trillion in budget surpluses over the next 10 years. Democrats will argue, with justification, that the programs are being cut to make way for the $1.6 trillion (and rising) income tax cut, which is solidly tilted in favor of the wealthy.
Mr. Bush thus is in the awkward position of arguing against himself, maintaining on one hand that Congress must restrain itself on spending while trumpeting the popular but illusory line that there will be plenty of money to cut taxes big time, beef up education and defense, and reform Social Security and Medicare, all at once and all painlessly.
The Reagan era proved that massive tax cuts don't produce the economic bonanza that the pie-in-the-sky supply-siders promise, especially when they are accompanied by profligate spending. Furthermore, the revenue projections Mr. Bush has staked his budget on are based on incredibly optimistic projections - including unabated growth in the high-tech sector - that seem more unrealistic every day as the economy slows.
It could be argued that Mr. Bush has no choice politically but to pretend that he has a mandate for his budget plan. But just as the earthquake rattled Seattle, moderates of both parties in Congress have the responsibility to jar the budget process back toward the sensible epicenter, including modest spending increases and more equitable tax cuts for the American public.