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President Bush richly deserves the sudden plunge taken by his poll ratings last week. But his numbers are likely to turn around once his re-election campaign gets started. [IMGCAP(1)]

For the first time ever, the Gallup poll showed Bush’s approval rating at under 50 percent — 49, to be exact — an 11-point drop from early January.

Moreover, he trailed in a head-to-head matchup with the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), 53 percent to 46 percent, a 19-point reversal from Bush’s 12-point lead less than a month ago.

How to account for this? It’s been long predicted by chief Bush polling strategist Matthew Dowd that the president would fall behind as attention focuses on the Democratic race and as voters mainly hear anti-Bush rhetoric in the media.

But there’s more to the drop in his approval rating than just that. His State of the Union speech was lackluster and ideologically tilted. Fourth-quarter 2003 economic growth was a weaker-than-expected 4 percent, and only 1,000 new jobs were created in December. (The revised number was 16,000.)

Huge misstatements were revealed in the cost of Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program, and weapons inspector David Kay reported that Iraq had no vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

Were voters truly sophisticated, Bush would suffer yet more disapproval in the next round of polling on account of his rigged, mean-spirited budget, which understates coming deficits and strikes a fiscally responsible pose at the expense of social programs that serve the poor and sick.

It’s a budget much like the State of the Union, designed to tend to Bush’s conservative base by plunging ahead with huge new tax breaks skewed to the wealthy and cuts strictly in domestic programs.

While boosting defense and homeland security — legitimately — Bush is cutting vocational and adult education, housing assistance for the elderly, dropout prevention assistance, medical research and literacy programs.

And still, the deficit for fiscal 2005 is projected to be $521 billion — a number that is causing House Republican moderates and conservatives to plot a joint rebellion at Wednesday’s GOP Conference meeting.

The conservative Republican Study Committee headed by Rep. Sue Myrick (N.C.) and the moderate Tuesday Group headed by Rep. Mike Castle (Del.) are planning what one participant called a “three-hour gripe session” and will propose an automatic spending freeze mechanism like the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings trigger of the 1990s.

If there were to be a trigger, it certainly should apply to Bush’s tax-cut proposals as well as domestic spending, but such an idea is likely to be fiercely opposed by the administration.

There is good reason for Members of Congress and ordinary citizens to be worried about budget deficits. If they aren’t reversed, interest rates are bound to rise, the economy will weaken and there’ll be no way to finance the retirement of the baby boom generation.

Bush’s master plan is to reduce the deficit mainly by stimulating investment and economic growth through one round of tax cuts after another benefiting those who pay the most taxes — the wealthy — but so far there’s little evidence that the plan is working for ordinary Americans.

Economic growth surged at an 8.2 percent rate in the third quarter of 2003, but that dropped by half in the fourth quarter, and job creation — which is more important to voters than corporate profits — was dismal.

Bush’s budget promised to reduce deficits by half over the next five years, but it excluded any estimate of the cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 30,000 new troops for the Army suddenly authorized by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the long-term cost of tax cuts, or adjustments that must be made in the Alternative Minimum Tax.

As The Washington Post noted last week in a stinging editorial — headlined “Bogus Budgeting” — the biggest distortion of all was to limit estimates to a five-year window during which Bush’s plan to make his tax cuts permanent would cost just $132 billion. But the 10-year cost would be $936 billion, not counting interest.

The budget’s deception and cruel priorities were unveiled after last week’s Gallup poll was taken, but its internals show deep general dissatisfaction with Bush policy.

Bush’s job approval on the economy was 43 percent, down from 54 percent in early January. On foreign affairs, it was 46 percent, down from 58 percent. On Iraq, 46 percent, down from 61.

Kerry outpolled Bush as being more “in touch with the problems of ordinary Americans,” putting “the country’s interests ahead of his own political interests,” and sharing “your values.” Bush is seen as a much stronger leader who “stands up for what he believes in.”

And Bush hasn’t really begun to fight. He has collected almost $200 million to spend partially on ads touting his achievements.

Bush has command of the “bully pulpit” and he can expect two boosts when taxpayers receive refunds this spring from the 2003 round of tax cuts and seniors discover in July that they’re getting 20 percent to 40 percent discounts on prescription drugs.

Kerry’s polling advantage is bound to wither under blistering criticism of his “Massachusetts liberal” voting record, especially on national security issues.

So, unless the economy falters or Iraq turns into a quagmire, Bush is due for a comeback. But heaven help us in a second Bush term with a heavily Republican Congress. Bush won’t even have to pretend to be a “compassionate conservative.”

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