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The Bush Presidency: Public Address to Congress Tonight Will Focus on Budget Proposals

Aired February 27, 2001 - 1:06 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: President Bush says he has a plan to put more money in all of our pockets, debt, taxes and government priorities all on the agenda tonight when President Bush addresses a joint session of Congress, in less than eight hours from now. Even more than the details themselves, what interests the president's allies and critics alike are how he plans to sell his agenda to Congress and indeed the nation.

And here with more about that, CNN's John King, from the White House -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Natalie, those doubts, that lowering of the consumer confidence, one reason the president will make the case that the country should have a big tax cut. There's a big debate about that, whether these projected federal surpluses are indeed real, whether that money will materialize, but the president will make the case tonight that his $1.6 trillion, 10- year, across-the-board tax cut is the best way to get consumers more confident about the economy in the future and to get them spending more, which of course, then -- would regenerate some economic growth.

The president will also try to reinforce the image that he ran on in the campaign: that this is a compassionate conservative in the White House. He'll propose nearly $5 billion in addition education spending, about $2.8 billion for more medical research at the National Institutes of Health, and he'll propose paying down most of the long- term national debt.

Some controversy there: Democrats say he won't pay it all off because he needs that money to pay for a tax cut. This the beginning of the budget debate. Budgets are proposed in February. They tend to reach a compromise sometime around August -- this president's attempt to try to siege the initiative in this debate, of course, for much of his first five weeks in office, he's been overshadowed a bit by his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

A national television audience on night, then the president will travel to five states over the next two days to take his case directly to the American people -- Natalie.

ALLEN: And John, what will we not hear in tonight's speech before Congress? KING: Well, you won't hear any specifics about reforming the big ticket items in budget, Social Security and Medicare. The president will propose a bipartisan commission to look at Social Security, big major structural Medicare reforms are down the road, the White House team still debating just how to go about that, whether to accept recommendations made by a previous commission or to have a new investigation.

Those, of course, locked-in federal money, guaranteed benefits -- that's what cost the federal government the most. The president not dealing with those just yet. Right now, he wants to try to generate some momentum behind his modest new spending proposals, and especially behind that big tax cut.

ALLEN: John King -- thanks, John.

The fiscal course being charted by the new administration is drawing comparisons to the Reagan years, but there's one big difference: Nobody has ever called the new president the Great Communicator. Does it matter? Do memorable speeches have anything to do with sound policy, or vice versa?

We're going to talk now with our senior political analyst Bill Schneider about that.

Hi there, Bill.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Natalie.

ALLEN: Well, the president has certainly received a lot of feedback from late night talk shows and what you have you about his verbal gaffes. Is it -- are we going to able to focus on what he's saying or how he says it tonight?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I think he wants to us focus on what he's say, and I think he's going to be very careful. He's usually good in prepared speeches: his Inaugural address, his convention speech. The gaps tend to come in impromptu sessions in a press conference. Tonight is a prepared speech.

His communication skills will be very, very important, however, because he's at disadvantage, not just as a communicator, with Ronald Reagan, but because Ronald Reagan started off his presidency in 1981 with a crisis at hand: The economy was a mess. People had elected him with an enormous mandate to set things right. And I remember back 20 years ago -- you were only a child -- but I remember that people said do something. They weren't too confident that the tax cut was necessary, but they said, look, just do something to get the economy straightened out. George W. Bush doesn't come in with that kind of mandate, so he's going to have to sell his program.

ALLEN: And many have said, early on in his presidency here, that part of his style to sell it is the way he likes to try and charm those that he's talking with. He's got that smirk, that grin, that wink -- he's always got the wink a someone -- do you think he'll be able to charm his way past Democratic congress members. SCHNEIDER: You can't run on charm entirely, especially with Congress. The charm offensive works with the public. With Congress, you've got to show some clout -- in particular, you've got to make Congress afraid of you. Ronald Reagan did that. Reagan was a master at turning his personal popularity into political clout. How do you do that? By making sure members of Congress know that -- that they cannot defy you with impunity, that if they turn against you, as several -- even Republican -- senators have done, saying they won't support this tax cut, they will pay a price for that.

Ronald Reagan let them know very quickly that there would be a price to pay because he had the public behind him.

ALLEN: And finally, we've seen, for the past eight years, the Republicans sit stoically in their chairs, Bill, when President Clinton would give his speeches. Now, it's the Republican's turn to cheer, and can imagine Trent Lott will be coming out of his seat tonight. What -- are there any moments, do you think, in this budget plan that the Democrats might offer polite applause?

SCHNEIDER: Debt reduction -- I mean that's basically the defining difference now between the parties: The Republicans have staked their cause on tax cuts -- they're very enthusiastic about it; tax cuts will save the economy, will get things moving again -- Democrats don't oppose tax cuts, so they'll applaud politely. Debt reduction -- President Clinton, his final address, said we are on a path to fiscal responsibility, and he challenged the new president don't take us off that path.

So when George Bush tonight talks about his commitment to debt reduction, you're going to find Democrats cheering and Republicans applauding, but not quite maybe with the same enthusiasm.

ALLEN: All right, well, we'll -- we'll be watching, and we'll wait to hear from you afterwards, as always.

SCHNEIDER: OK.

ALLEN: Bill Schneider, thanks, in Washington.

SCHNEIDER: Sure.

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