It is odd, in a way, for the media to deal with events such as President Bush’s news conference Thursday evening like theatrical performances.
The AP story, for example, noted “At times, he twisted the toe of his shoe on the carpeted riser.”
Perhaps such reviews are appropriate, however. Like most presidential appearances, this event was more political theater than substance. Having entered a second term with an ambitious agenda, Bush and his administration are in rough waters.
While his Social Security offensive has persuaded most Americans that the system is in trouble, it hasn’t engendered support for personal retirement accounts. John Bolton’s nomination to the United Nations has hit snags. The Democrats have been united in opposition to judicial nominees, personal accounts and other initiatives. Some Republicans have defected.
From a theatrical perspective, the president seemed at ease, even affable, and in command of the facts he needed. While it is risky to underestimate this Bush, however, it is doubtful that this performance will give him political traction.
On Social Security, while more realistic than his opponents, he has become a victim of his early decision to stress the coming fiscal crisis rather than the benefits of ownership.
Anyone who has looked candidly knows it is pure fantasy to view benefits as “guaranteed” based on what workers have “earned.” Future benefits are based on the willingness of future Congresses to tax future workers, or to cut elsewhere.
To reassure older and low-income workers, however, Bush must buy into the pleasant fiction. But this makes it harder to sell a multitiered system. So many politicians have made so many unrealistic promises over the years that middle- and upper-income Americans, at this point, tend to get surly at the prospect of not getting what they think they are “entitled” to.
President Bush might yet overcome that attitude, even as he might someday be vindicated in what strikes us as an overly rosy perspective on foreign affairs. But it will take more than being affable.