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Bush Trails Kerry on ‘Vision Thing,’ But Plans Catch-up

Democrat John Kerry is miles ahead of President Bush in setting an agenda for the next four years. But Bush is planning to catch up soon.

In a speech scheduled for next week, Bush intends to begin talking about his future plans — or “hint” at them with a “place-setter,” White House aides say — instead of merely touting his record of the past four years. [IMGCAP(1)]

The unveiling effort is scheduled to begin in earnest after the Democratic National Convention concludes July 29 and before the Republican convention kicks off Aug. 30.

In a series of speeches during August, Bush intends to define the “pillars” of his agenda — targeting new challenges in the world, in the economy, and with America’s families and communities — while attaching some new “policy nuggets.”

Finally, aides say, “the big things” will be announced in his convention acceptance speech Sept. 2, when he’ll have maximum national attention. That will set the stage for major new policy debates before the election.

White House aides refuse to say what specific “big” policy items are coming, but one of them is expected to be a broader health care reform plan than Bush is presently advocating.

As befits a challenger, Kerry has been unveiling proposal after proposal on health, job creation, technology, education and military reform ever since the Democratic primaries got under way.

Many of Kerry’s ideas are imaginative, large of vision and politically moderate, such as corporate tax cuts, a mostly privately based national health-insurance plan, increased funding for basic research and new programs to make college affordable.

Kerry says his initiatives can be paid for by eliminating, and not extending, Bush’s tax cuts for those earning more than $200,000 a year, and by repealing laws that enable U.S. corporations to escape taxes on foreign profits. (Bush aides charge that the costs will be far larger, entailing bigger tax increases.)

Kerry has been fighting administration charges of “pessimism” with the slogan that “America can do better.” Since naming Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) as his running mate, the slogan has become “a new team for a new America.”

In the meantime, perhaps as befits an incumbent, Bush so far has devoted most of his speeches to defining how — as he put it in Pennsylvania on July 9 — “things are getting better in America,” especially due to his tax cuts, which he claims have pushed the economy into a rebound.

But there’s been little hint of what the president’s father called “the vision thing,” or any new proposals such as those said to be coming in August and September.

In Pennsylvania, Bush did say, “I have a vision and strategy to win the war on terror and extend peace and freedom throughout the world, … I have a plan to create jobs and opportunity for every single American.

“I have a plan to rally the compassionate spirit of this country so every American has a chance to realize their dreams. I will be clear about where I stand and where this country is heading.”

Repeating the current slogan of his campaign — one that aides say is likely to change before the convention — Bush concluded, “We are making America safer. We are making America stronger, and we are making America better.”

So far, most of the content of what Bush proposes in his speeches is familiar stuff left unfinished during his first term: an energy policy, tort reform, small-business health insurance pools and legislation to make his tax cuts permanent.

But aides say there are other items Bush is proposing that the media has almost completely ignored, especially in the area of job training.

One is a $250 million expansion of aid to community colleges so that they can retrain workers for new jobs that are available in their localities.

As one example, an administration official cited North Carolina, where tobacco and textile jobs are disappearing. There, the official said, “community colleges have turned into dramatic retraining opportunities. In Winston-Salem, they’re taking people who worked in the tobacco warehouses or textile mills and turning them into biotech workers at a rate where, literally, they’ll hire everyone who comes out of a community college program.

“Our expansion of aid to community colleges is all designed to encourage expansion of job-training programs. And nobody, nobody [in the media] has paid any attention to it.”

Administration officials and Congressional Republicans also tout a bill that passed in the House in 2003 to experiment with “worker reemployment accounts” — $3,000 in extra unemployment aid that workers could use to help them find new jobs or keep if they found work quickly. The administration had $50 million in its 2005 budget for the pilot.

And, the administration is proposing — and the House has passed — a rewrite of the Workforce Investment Act that would consolidate the government’s major job-training plans, give localities more flexibility in managing them and enable faith-based institutions to take part in the program.

What the Bush programs desperately need is a context and a vision for the future, along with an agenda for what he’d do in the next four years if re-elected.

“Stay tuned,” is the White House by-word. Aides say we’ll hear some of it before the GOP convention and lots more thereafter.

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