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VOA-TV Interview with Alan Lichtman - 2003-01-29


VOA-TV host David Borgida talks with Alan Lichtman, a history professor at American University and a frequent political commentator, about President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address.

MR. BORGIDA
Well, there's a lot to talk about after the speech obviously. And joining us to do just that, one of our favorite guests, American University History Professor Alan Lichtman. Thanks for joining us, Professor Lichtman.

The timing of this speech, the way it was constructed, the economy and domestic issues first, Iraq second, why?

PROF. LICHTMAN
He remembers what happened to his father. He was a big hero after the 1991 Gulf War, then the economy went south and his father lost his bid for reelection. No American President has ever been reelected during an election year recession.

George Bush desperately wants to avoid that. It's still what Bill Clinton said in 1992: "It's the economy, stupid."

MR. BORGIDA
Do you think that it's resonating with the American public? These are two tough issues, the economy and of course pending possible conflict in Iraq. How is the public seeing this at this point?

PROF. LICHTMAN
The public's top priority is always the economy. Of course, if we go to war, that's going to change. But they're not really standing up and applauding President Bush's $674 billion stimulus plan, because many Americans believe there is too much in there for the rich and not enough to stimulate the economy.

He perhaps has a tougher selling job with his economic stimulus package than he does with his plans for war with Iraq.

MR. BORGIDA
Let's talk about that for a minute, because tax cuts are very controversial here in the United States. What is the debate, Republicans and Democrats? Give us a quick thumbnail of that.

PROF. LICHTMAN
Republicans believe that the best way to get the economy going is to get more money in the hands of those who are going to invest and create jobs. Thus, we have things like getting rid of the tax on dividends, a tax primarily paid by the wealthy.

The Democrats, on the other hand, believe the best way and the fairest way to get the economy going is to put money in the hands of ordinary workers. So, they have tax cut plans more focused on the average American, and spending plans that would likewise put money in the hands of ordinary citizens.

MR. BORGIDA
And, Professor Lichtman, there are divisions, too, about Iraq. Senator Joe Biden, a key Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, was on the Senate floor the other day talking about how the President had to make his case more forcefully about why we need to deal militarily with Iraq. There is a partisan divide over that, isn't there, at the moment?

PROF. LICHTMAN
There is, but it's not, frankly, as great as the partisan divide over domestic policy. The truth is, if the President goes to the Congress and says, "We have to go into Iraq; our national security is at stake," at least half of the Democrats, and maybe more, are going to go along with him. His political problem would come down the road, if the operation turns sour or if it turns into kind of a long-term, ineffective occupation.

MR. BORGIDA
He has two years left to make his case to the public to be reelected, if we talk about this in partisan terms. How do you think he did in terms of the larger audience, the American voter out there?

We've referred to some polls that show more people are convinced about the need to deal with Iraq militarily. How do you think he is doing, though, in terms of the confidence level, the trust and so forth, that voters are so interested in?

PROF. LICHTMAN
Look, you always get a bounce after the State of the Union. Approval ratings always go up. But on domestic politics, you didn't see the same fire, the same enthusiasm, as when he turned to foreign affairs.

It was pretty much the old George Bush, the compassionate conservative. I think the debate over domestic issues will still rage on. But, in the end, it will depend on the performance of the economy far more than any presidential rhetoric. The economy has got to get a little bit better.

MR. BORGIDA
And certainly the impact of Iraq and the plans to go to war with Iraq are impacting the economy. It's all interrelated, isn't it?

PROF. LICHTMAN
It's all interrelated. Look, he's talking about big tax cuts, billions of dollars for things like Medicare and fighting AIDS, and a hugely expensive war. He really has yet to tell us who is going to pay the piper for all this.

And you heard the economists say this is going to have unpredictable effects on an already shaky economy. It's a very tricky political calculation for Bush.

MR. BORGIDA
And your thoughts about how he did last time? I think most people felt, both Democrats and Republicans, that he did a very good job. This year, your view, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a real knockout?

PROF. LICHTMAN
I thought he did about a 7, not nearly as good as last time. In particular, I thought the speech was weak for an international audience, which would have been looking for more new information.

It was better for the folks at home, I think, than for the audience around the world. I don't expect worldwide public opinion, which is pretty negative, to move.

MR. BORGIDA
And he put some of that off for Secretary Powell to talk to the U.N. next week.

PROF. LICHTMAN
He did buy some time. Now, this is a very deliberate President. He doesn't rush into things. And this strategy will unfold step by step. February 5th, the U.N. meeting, is going to be a critical date.

MR. BORGIDA
Professor Alan Lichtman, of American University here in Washington, always great to talk to you. Thanks so much for joining us.

PROF. LICHTMAN
Thank you.

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