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Flash Traffic

Flash Traffic | Political Buzz from Washington

Issue: "Fact & Fiction," Dec. 21, 2002

Three months before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I attended an "insider briefing" at the top of the World Trade Center with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and several Wall Street executives. The topic: Social Security reform. The secretary was supposed to explain President Bush's idea of allowing workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in their own personal retirement accounts-similar to IRAs or 401(k) plans-and explore how a campaign to build public and congressional support for the president's idea might be run. It was a high-powered group, and a spectacular venue to discuss arguably the most revolutionary Bush initiative. But Mr. O'Neill gave a styleless, substance-free performance, and many left the meeting shaking their heads in disappointment. It wasn't the first time the Treasury secretary had underwhelmed financial leaders, and it wouldn't be the last.

In recent weeks, a number of Wall Street strategists and supply-side economists (as well as this column on Nov. 16) urged the president to bring in a new Treasury secretary to signal a bold new direction on economic policy. Many, therefore, are now cheering President Bush's decision to sack Mr. O'Neill. A weak advocate of pro-growth tax cuts, Mr. O'Neill actually said at his confirmation hearings in January 2001 that he didn't think the Bush tax-cut plan would do much to help the economy. He gave lip service to the need for tax reform and simplification but did little to move the issue forward. Nor did he help his own stock when he described Wall Street financiers as "not the sort of people you would want to help you think about complex questions."

Also forced to resign: chief economic advisor Larry Lindsey. A supply-sider and flat-tax supporter, Mr. Lindsey surprised many in Washington by seeming to wield little clout in the White House.

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New faces won't be enough, however. In the State of the Union address, the president must roll out a new package of accelerated, permanent pro-growth tax cuts. In the wake of the dramatic mid-term election victories, the White House suddenly has huge reserves of political capital. The question now is, How will the administration invest it?

Poised to go to war with yet another predominantly Muslim nation, TeamBush is conspicuously courting Islamic leaders. On Nov. 5, the president issued greetings to one billion Muslims around the world to mark the beginning of Ramadan. On Nov. 7, he told a White House dinner for Muslim diplomats that "our nation is waging a war on a radical network of terrorists, not on a religion and not on a civilization." On Nov. 18, Secretary Colin Powell hosted a dinner for Muslim leaders at the State Department. On Nov. 19, then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill joined Pakistani leaders to celebrate Ramadan in Islamabad. On Dec. 4, National Security Advisor Condi Rice celebrated Ramadan at a dinner of Muslim clerics in Washington. On Dec. 5, the president marked the end of Ramadan at the Islamic Center of Washington, noting that, "in the United States our Muslim citizens are making many contributions in business, science and law, medicine and education, and in other fields. Muslim members of our armed forces and of my administration are serving their fellow Americans with distinction."

Believing a post-Saddam world could offer new opportunities for forging Middle East peace, the White House made Elliott Abrams a top new National Security Council official. The former Reagan assistant secretary of state will work on Arab-Israeli peace initiatives. He's been advising President Bush on human-rights issues since last year. Highly regarded by fellow conservatives, Mr. Abrams chaired the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001. He previously served as president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center from 1996 to 2001. Also named to the NSC to assist Abrams: Flynt Leverett, a top CIA analyst who will now serve as the NSC's senior director for Middle East initiatives.

Joel C. Rosenberg
Joel C. Rosenberg

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