A Hot Washington Summer, A Hotter Washington Fall

James Zogby’s Column

Despite receiving initial criticism for his record-breaking vacation to his “heartland” home in Texas, Bush fooled his critics.  By making well-orchestrated visits to targeted mid-Western and Western states, the President attempted to use his month out of Washington to focus attention on key elements of his domestic program. 

With Congress in recess, Bush, in effect, took the White House out of Washington in an effort to regain the edge in the policy debate.  The working vacation took on the character of a relaxed political campaign-with the same style and some of the same themes of Bush’s 2000 campaign.  The message he was sending was that he was not a Washington politician, but was from the “heartland”, reflecting the ideas and values of average Americans.

Events, however, have complicated Bush’s plan and as he returns to the capital, the President may find the Autumn to be hotter than a Washington summer.

Just last week, for example, the Administration received a major blow when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its figures for the year, showing the projected budget surplus to be substantially lower than the White House’s initial estimates.  The CBO numbers were so low that they estimated that for the government to move forward with planned spending, they would be required to dip into that part of the surplus that is generated by Social Security revenues.

It should be understood that, for the last several years, the projected surpluses were in two major parts-those derived from general revenues and those derived from social security payments made by American workers.  Most Republicans in Congress and some Democrats have come to consider the Social Security surplus as untouchable.  It may be remembered that in 2000, candidate Al Gore proposed a “lock box” for the Social Security surplus, arguing that those annual excess revenues would be needed in the future to pay benefits when the large “baby boomer” generation retires in the next decade.  Using these Social Security revenues to cover the deficit of the annual operating expenses of the government, it was explained, would only hasten the day when the Social Security trust fund would be bankrupted, thereby harming the retirement security of future generations.

In any case, when large surpluses were being projected for both general revenues and the Social Security revenues for at least the next decade, the “lock box” argument was not taken too seriously.  Two factors have changed all this.  A declining economy and the President’s massive tax cut programs passed into law earlier this year have, it appears, combined to drastically lower revenues and all but wipe out the projected non-Social Security surplus.

The numbers tell the whole story.  Back in April, the White House was still projecting a combined surplus of $281 billion.  The new White House figures are only $158 billion (with $157 billion coming from Social Security and only $1 billion in general revenues).  The Congressional Budget Office figures are even lower at $148 billion, with estimates that, given current spending estimates, the Bush Administration will have to spend $9 billion of the Social Security revenues.

All of this came as a surprise to both the President and the country as a whole.  So as Congress returns in the fall, it can be expected to engage in a heated debate, both over budget priorities and new spending requests that the President may put forward.  Since the Defense Department, for example, has only recently identified its proposals for next year’s budget, calling for an extra $18.4 billion in spending, this can be expected to be a hot topic in the Congress.  Some Democrat Senators are even now discussing reopening debate on the President’s tax cut program, which they are saying is being shown to have been fiscally irresponsible. The President, of course, will respond by defending his tax cut and putting the burden on Congress to cut spending.  This ideological debate over budgeting matters and the role and size of government was what the 2000 elections were about.  The topic will continue to be a contentious one.

If these budgetary matters were not problematic enough for the President, he will also face challenges on some items in his social agenda, as well.

It will be recalled that Bush’s first public appearance after beginning his vacation was an “address to the nation” on the matter of stem cell research.  The speech came at the end of what was described as a long and involved period of reflection and debate by the President on the moral implications of this question.  His solution, which was presented as a carefully crafted compromise has, it appears, not silenced opposition from both sides of the debate. And since questions are now being raised about the accuracy of some of the data Bush used in his speech to justify his position, there is little doubt that this issue will continue to be debated into the fall.

Another area where the Bush Administration can expect a fight is over the question of granting amnesty to the millions of Mexican illegal immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.  It was the Administration that created this problem by floating a trial balloon a few months ago by proposing amnesty.  It was initially suggested that, if implemented, Republicans might benefit from the positive reaction of the large Hispanic community-one of the U.S.’ largest voting blocs.  But a number of complications have developed.  Congressional Republicans have rejected the idea for two reasons.  Some argue that Hispanics vote Democrat anyway and adding millions of new Hispanic voters would be counterproductive to their party’s interests.  More importantly, others opposed the idea arguing that it rewarded those who broke the law.

Even Hispanic groups have been unimpressed, arguing that a double standard was being applied, giving a benefit to Mexicans only while denying amnesty for other Central American immigrants.  In any case, this issue is now on the agenda and the President will be forced to deal with it and the opposition it has created when Congress returns.

If these domestic issues were not enough to complicate Bush’s return, he will have a number of foreign policy problems with which to contend as well. 

There is continuing concern over the Administration’s decision to back the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty, and to move forward with plans to build a controversial missile defense shield.  Critics continue to label this program untested and too costly.

And the decision by the Administration to send a lower level team to the UN World Conference Against Racism has not only angered the Arab world and reinforced the impression of U.S. abstention from international agreements and forums-it has also irritated many African Americans as well. 

As the Middle East conflict continues to boil, the Administration’s handling of the fighting is receiving some criticism.   In recent weeks, a few influential senators publicly criticized the Administration’s failure to become engaged in high-level efforts to calm the Israeli-Palestinian fighting.  But these are not the only voices the Administration will hear.  There will be a strong push in Congress led by the pro-Israel lobby to take action to punish the Palestinians by denying them U.S. aid and by criminalizing the PLO’s presence in the U.S.  While it is hoped that the Administration will resist these efforts, the debate will be quite intense.

To date, even Arab Americans sympathetic to the Bush Administration have not been impressed with the White House’s performance on Palestinian-related issues.  And there is some concern that the fall may bring more setbacks in U.S. policy toward the region.

In any case, it will be a hot fall in the capital, with the Bush Administration facing a great number of tests on matters both foreign and domestic.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.