A Serious President

On some new level and in some new way George W. Bush burrowed into the presidency Tuesday night. Like him or not, he is a man to be taken seriously. He spoke to the House and Senate with apparent ease and confidence, but more important his address was a deft document, and a revealing one, too.

The overnight polls called it a success, and when it was over I wondered what the writers for Leno and Letterman will do for new material. Dopey Bush seems over. They may have to start writing jokes about movie stars and funny things they saw in the paper, just like in the old days. It will be odd to have a president who isn’t the main subject of the monologue every night.

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Mr. Bush sometimes shows a clever way of flipping reality, and he did it in his speech. He approached the Democrats not as if they were burly tribunes of the people, but as if they were anxious accountants, pale and cringing under fluorescent lights. He acted as if they had to be told “It’s OK, loosen up, take the green eyeshades off and come on out into the sun.”

“I’m not sure the numbers add up,” said Hillary Clinton, on message, as she walked into the speech. “His plan leaves no money for anything except tax cuts,” fretted Dick Gephardt in his official response. He’s the optimist, they’re the pessimists. This was clear not only in words but in the picture; Mr. Bush was (sometimes literally) bouncy. In the cutaways, the Democrats looked sour, resentful, as if they’d been hit in the face by a sock full of pennies. Which in a way they had.

Mr. Bush’s words were economical; he covered a lot of ground quickly. An artist “using statistics as a brush” would paint two different pictures of America. “One would have warning signs: increasing layoffs, rising energy prices, too many failing schools. . . . Another picture would be full of blessings: a balanced budget, big surpluses.” This was candor as strategy: If there’s a deficit, let’s not forget it’s not mine, and since there’s a surplus let’s use it.

He called for an end, interestingly enough, of the ideological disagreements that have cleaved our country: “Year after year in Washington, budget debates come down to an old, tired argument—on one side, those who want more government, regardless of the cost; on the other, those who want less government, regardless of the need.” This was the authentic sound of triangulation, and was merrily insincere: Almost no one on the right wants less government regardless of need, and not too many on the left operate in utter disregard of cost. But it set Mr. Bush up as the reasonable man in the middle, which is where he wants to appear to be.

And this reflected the primary fact of his party, circa 2001: It has been made more modest in its ambitions, for a number of reasons, and having won back power after the long trauma of the ‘90s, it is determined not to blow it.

The speech was moderate but not squishy. His argument on a tax cut was pointed and direct: “The American people have been overcharged, and I’m here to ask for a refund.” A typical family with two children will save $1,600 a year on their federal income tax, and “$1,600 may not sound like a lot to some, but it means a lot to many families. Sixteen hundred dollars buys gas for two cars for an entire year.”

More telling was his flipping of the standard tax argument from one of “lower taxes or lower the deficit” to “lower taxes, or Congress will keep the money and increase the deficit.” In the slyest part of the speech, he decided to portray some anxiety of his own: If we don’t cut taxes, Congress will spend so much they’ll endanger Social Security! This drew a horrified gasp from the Democratic side of the aisle, but you couldn’t help think they were thinking not, “Oh no, he is incorrect!” but “Oh no, the kid knows how to dance!’” At any rate, it was theft of a traditional Democratic issue, and left Connecticut’s Sen. Chris Dodd laughing with what seemed one dancer’s appreciation of another’s pirouette.

This was followed by the tale of Steven and Josefina Ramos, a middle-class couple who, the president said, will be able to save $2,000 on their taxes under his plan, enough to begin to retire their own debts. We’ve gone from the hero in the balcony to the citizen in the audience, but it seemed to work.

Mr. Bush portrayed himself as tribune of the people and savior of waitresses getting killed on marginal rates, and seemed to be saying to the opposition: How can you fat cats deny these people the help they need and deserve? The Democrats didn’t look too happy about it, and Tom Shales in the Washington Post summed up the impression they made: “They looked like yesterday. Bush was giving the audience tomorrow.”

The president eschews the overarching moral language of Ronald Reagan, who was guided by philosophy and who would have beat the drum on freedom, on the right of the citizenry to be free of the heavy, grasping hand of government. Mr. Bush is guided by practicality: Let the waitress keep her earnings, let’s give the economy the jump start it needs. Hey, let’s make sure it starts soon by making the cut retroactive! It was the speech of an MBA with a point of view and a commonsensical approach to achieving it.

The speech was also ideologically layered in its assertions. We need character education in the schools—and we need more money for reading. We need teacher recruitment—and we need local control of the schools. We must support faith-based programs—we must end racial profiling! We must retire the debt—we must cut taxes! In short, we must be bold, but in a prudent way. Let’s put a trillion dollars away right away in case we make a mistake. He gave everyone something to cheer for, and Mr. Bush’s real message—I’m the least radical guy who ever walked down the block—came through loud and clear.

For a stupid man he sure is smart.

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Mr. Bush has a way of looking amused, both by himself and by the audience, but he manages to do it without seeming frivolous, and unlike his predecessor without seeming cynical. He has a kind of joshy gravitas. He also has a way of laughing with his shoulders that is goofily endearing if you like him and just goofy if you don’t. He frequently seems to bite his lip, like a businessman who’s trying to remember not to suck on a match at a meeting. His eyes are close together and dark, two little raisins on a beige muffin, and they both sparkle and are unexpressive.

For some reason, the way he looks always surprises me, and the surprise makes me think of what the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock said in Texas. He said of Mr. Bush, a few years ago, “He’s going to be a president some day. And he’s going to be a great one.” Big things can come in surprising packages.

But the headline on Mr. Bush right now, and on the speech, apart from its deftness, is the way he approaches friends and foes. He does not pierce, but envelops. Joe Moakley, a 29-year veteran of the House, a Democrat from South Boston, ill and well-liked by all, didn’t know he was going to be recognized by the president. “I would have preferred if he’d said I was going to Disneyland,” he joked in a telephone call. He was “flabbergasted” by the attention, and pleased to be linked to increased funding for the National Institutes of Health.

He sounded like someone who couldn’t resist liking a guy he wasn’t supposed to like.