Team Econ: Next Up?

They play nicely together -- but do they have the political muscle to turn the President's goals into reality?

President Bush wants to push forward an ambitious economic agenda in his second term that would include broad reform of Social Security and still more changes in the tax code. But to turn it into reality, he'll be relying on a new team that's largely untested in the political arena.

In the 20 months since Bush began replacing his original crew -- Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill and economic advisers Lawrence B. Lindsey and R. Glenn Hubbard, the creative but fractious bunch that designed and won major tax cuts in 2001 and 2002 -- the new econoids have scored points inside the Oval Office by working smoothly together. Yet some critics wonder whether that harmony conceals a lack of creativity and political muscle needed to push through the next chapter of Bush's economic reform.

There's no sign that the President is going to throw overboard any of his current economic advisers. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Office of Management & Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten, and Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans will in all probability stick around. But Washington insiders wouldn't be surprised if Council of Economic Advisers Chairman N. Gregory Mankiw decides he prefers Harvard University and National Economic Council Director Stephen Friedman steps down after tiring of the Washington grind. Former Treasury official Tim Adams, now policy director for the Bush campaign, could take over at the NEC should Friedman leave.

Unlike Bush's original econ-team, no one in this group comes to the table with a strongly held agenda. Instead, they're likely to work closely with the President's political advisers to transform his goals for Social Security and tax reform into concrete plans. The most influential player may be Bolten, who has developed a tight working relationship with Bush dating back to the 2000 campaign. He's a major advocate for reforming taxes and adding private investment accounts to Social Security. And as head of the OMB, he also manages the pursestrings.

Snow has forged strong links with Evans, and together the two have been the public face of the economic crew. Snow's main job will be to sell Bush's tax ideas to wary lawmakers and Wall Street. Evans, a longtime Bush confidante, serves as a sounding board and will continue to be a key conduit to the business community.

So far, Bush's economic team has enjoyed easy sailing. But can it carry through the President's aggressive agenda while keeping his pledge to cut a $400 billion budget deficit in half by the end of his second term? That challenge will put their harmony -- and Bush's faith in this group -- to the test.

By Rich Miller and Howard Gleckman in Washington

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