President On The Defensive

President Bush, in Little Rock, Ark., Mar. 1, 2001.
President Bush on Wednesday confronted critics of federal aid to religious groups, his environmental about-face and the White House tax-cut plan, promising "a second wind for economic growth" if his budget passes Congress.

After a smooth start to his administration, legislative and economic events out of Mr. Bush's control are forcing the new president into a defensive posture.

His three-hour trip to New Jersey was designed to pressure senators to support his 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax-cut package. But the visit was complicated from the start by news that stocks had plunged on Wall Street, sending the Dow Jones industrials below 10,000 for the first time in five months.

"I'm concerned that a lot of Americans' portfolios have been affected; people that put aside money in the stock market are now seeing their asset base decline. But I've got faith in our economy," Mr. Bush said.

"I believe the plans we're putting in place by working with the Congress are going to serve as a second wind for economic growth."

In a speech to the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Bush said, "Our economy is beginning to sputter. But with the right policies, I'm confident our economy will recover."

The Bush tax plan was favored by Americans over a Democratic alternative in the latest CBS News/New York Times poll.

While he used the sagging economy to promote his tax-cut plan, Mr. Bush cited energy shortages in the West to explain a broken campaign promise on the environment. It was his first opportunity to explain why he decided not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions at power plants as a pollutant, a stark reversal of his campaign position.

"We're in an energy crisis now," he said one day after the White House announcement that angered environmentalists and left his EPA chief, Christie Whitman, who had vigorously promoted the curbs, twisting in the wind.

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Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said, "This is the second time in two weeks a policy announcement made by a secretary has been reversed."

The first time, reports CBS News Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts, was when Secretary of State Colin Powell declared he was ready to pick up negotiations on North Korea's missile program right where the Clinton administration left off. A day later, as President Bush met with South Korea's president, a humbled Powell was dispatched to correct himself.

In his first 50 days in office, the president also reversed course on two other big campaign promises: Proposing to ease rather than toughen sanctions against Iraq, and dialing back on plans to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Former White House officials point out Mr. Bush is hardly the first president to hit a few early bumps.

Michael Deaver, a former aide to President Reagan, said, "This is the most disciplined White House I've ever seen. So we're what, five weeks, something like that? Of course you're going to see some of these things."

While in New Jersey, Mr. Bush also visited a Plainfield, N.J., church where state money is spent on a religious group's after-school program. Mr. Bush wants federal money freed to help similar faith-based institutions provide community services.

His proposal is being fought from the left, where constitutional questions are being raised, and the right, where some religious leaders worry about government intervention.

"We ought to welcome faith-based programs into our society, not fear them," Mr. Bush said.

Legislative sponsors have indicated that parts of Mr. Bush's faith-based initiative will be delayed while the controversial aspects are worked out. The president, however, said the White House has always planned to "take a full inventory" of similar programs before pushing legislation.

The president should have known it would be a rough day from the moment he stepped aboard Marine One, the presidential helicopter, to begin the trip. He bumped his head hard against the threshold, drawing groans and grimaces from the crowd outside the White House.

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