With gas prices topping $3 a gallon and jobs continuing to move overseas, President Bush is presenting anew his long-term solution to the nation’s economic anxieties: a program to boost the study of math and science and the renewal of a tax credit to encourage industrial research and development.
Eleven weeks after unveiling his American Competitiveness Initiative in the State of the Union address, Bush is devoting much of his public time this week to speeches -- in Maryland on Tuesday, in Alabama on Wednesday and in San Jose on Friday -- on the role that math, science and technology education and leading-edge research can play to protect the nation’s economic standing.
“So long as we’re the leader, people will be able to find good work,” Bush said, seeking support for his plan to increase federal spending on basic scientific research as the most important element in maintaining the U.S. ability to compete in the global economy.
Speaking at Tuskegee University, one of the most prominent of the nation’s historically black colleges, he said: “If we lose our nerve and retreat, it will make it hard for us to provide those jobs people want.”
As examples of basic research that led to breakthroughs, the president cited Defense Department work widely credited with leading to the creation of the Internet and government studies on electrochemistry and signal compression that contributed to the technology of the iPod.
“There’s no telling what’s going to come out of this,” he said.
For Bush, whose public approval ratings are at the lowest levels of his presidency, the issue offers an opportunity to present himself as focused on long-range problems and to tie them to the economic anxieties facing the nation today.
And unlike his ill-fated effort a year ago to overhaul the Social Security system, the proposals to address the nation’s ability to compete with India, China and other growing economies have gained bipartisan support.
A measure in the Senate similar in many ways to Bush’s proposal has 70 sponsors, divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans -- prompting one of its leading proponents, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), to predict that the Senate would begin debating it in June.
Alexander said that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told senators in a recent meeting that he hoped to act on the measure this year, although supporters outside Congress predicted that a multi-year effort would be required to pass major components.
The bill would boost federal support over 10 years for math and science education and for basic research in the physical sciences.
“It’s a real, long-term solution to lowering gas prices and to keeping jobs from going to India and China,” Alexander said.
Referring to today’s visit to the White House by Chinese President Hu Jintao and to his visit to India last month, Bush said: “These countries are emerging nations. They are growing rapidly, and they provide competition for jobs and natural resources.”
Democrats have criticized administration cuts in federal education programs, with one of the Senate’s leading liberals, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, saying in a statement Wednesday that “China, India and the rest of the world are playing for keeps, and we need more than half measures to keep up.”
Bush’s “actions need to catch up with his rhetoric,” Kennedy said.
Overall, the administration is seeking $5.9 billion for the American Competitiveness Initiative, with $4.6 billion set aside for the resumption of the research and development tax credit that expired Dec. 31.
In addition, money for basic research would be increased by about $1 billion, or 9%, in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, and spending would double over the next decade.
The administration’s plan also would provide $380 million in new money next year for math and science education.
The budget request, along with the time the president is spending on the matter this week after largely ignoring it in public since early February, “sends a very strong message that he is focusing on long-term economic issues,” said Barry Toiv, who was a deputy press secretary in the Clinton White House and is now a spokesman for the Assn. of American Universities, which represents the nation’s largest research universities. “They are investing in an extraordinary way to build up the education and research capacity in these areas.”
The White House has been frustrated by Bush’s low approval rating for his handling of the economy.
The most recent survey on the topic by the independent Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in mid-March, found that 34% of those polled approved of his handling of the economy and 57% disapproved, even as the stock market has rebounded, economic growth is healthy and unemployment continues at less than 5%.
Gloom over the economy, said Andrew Kohut, who directs the center, stemmed from fears that good jobs were disappearing overseas and from “worries about gas prices.”
With the president unlikely to shift gears dramatically and clamp down on imports or pose restrictions on gasoline price increases, Kohut said, the competitiveness program is “one solution Bush can advance that is consistent” with his policies.