Does Economic Curse Lurk Over House of Bush?

Posted March 17, 2004 at 3:38pm

Given the country’s economic unhappiness, there’s a definite whiff of 1992 around the Bush White House, but aides say they have a definite plan to dispel it. [IMGCAP(1)]

It consists of four parts: (1) Show that the country is in better shape than it was for President Bush’s father 12 years ago; (2) communicate better what this Bush is doing for the economy; (3) blast away at the economic alternatives offered by Democrat John Kerry and; (4) hope like hell that the job numbers start picking up.

The whole 1992 experience haunts the Bush family like grim ghost: The president’s father triumphantly won the first Iraq war, saw his approval ratings shoot into the high 80s, then presided over a recession that brought his rating down to 29 percent in mid-1992.

By fall 1992, the economy was recovering, but the elder Bush never managed to convince the country or the media that it was happening — or that he was giving domestic affairs proper attention — and the Clinton campaign made hay with the false charge that the economy was in the “worst shape since the Great Depression.” And, of course, Bush lost.

The current Bush has done everything possible to avoid the fate of his father, chiefly trying to stimulate the economy with enormous tax cuts and spending programs and endlessly repeating the “I care” message that he will not be satisfied until every worker who wants a job has one.

Yet, even though the current recovery is earlier and stronger by far than his father’s — by every measure except deficits and job creation — the country’s attitude about the economy is gloomy and Democrats are again charging that Bush has the worst economic record since Herbert Hoover.

Bush aides hasten to point out, as Part 1 of their “this isn’t 1992” strategy, that the current unemployment rate is 5.6 percent, compared to 7.4 percent in March 1992.

Moreover, in March 1992, Bush 41’s economic approval rating was 17 percent (and 80 percent disapproved of his performance), while Bush 43’s current rating on the economy is 45 percent to 52 percent.

Bush 41 had an overall approval rating in March 1992 of 41percent. Bush 43 currently has 50 percent. And, while only 39 percent of voters tell Gallup that they are “satisfied” with the way things are going in the country and 60 percent are not, in 1992 those numbers were 19 percent and 80 percent, respectively.

In 1996, as President Bill Clinton faced re-election, his March job approval was 52 percent, his economic approval was 46 percent and voters were satisfied/unsatisfied by a margin of 36 percent/61 percent.

Clinton, as Bush White House aides point out, presided over a net loss of 100,000 jobs in January 1996, yet the very next month, the economy created 420,000 jobs. By Election Day, both Clinton’s economic and overall approval ratings were up to 57 percent and the satisfied/dissatisfied figure was 47-47.

Bush 41’s problem was not only a lagging economy, but also a catastrophic failure of communications. And some critics see Bush 43, despite frequent speeches on the economy, falling into the same pit.

He’s tried to explain again and again that the Clinton-era high-tech boom was busting and the economy was moving into recession as he took office, then got hit with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks just as his first round of tax cuts were producing results, then got hit again with news of corporate scandals and, finally, was crimped by the Iraq war.

Bush also says his policies — making tax cuts permanent, enacting an energy bill, controlling health costs, deregulating business and instituting tort reform — are the recipe for creating jobs.

But the public seems not to be listening. The latest CBS/New York Times poll showed that only 14 percent of voters think Bush policies have increased jobs, while 47 percent say they have decreased them.

If Bush is re-elected, only 39 percent of voters said that he likely will increase jobs, vs. 50 percent who doubt it. If Kerry is elected, 53 percent think he’ll increase jobs vs. 29 percent who think he won’t.

For sure, Bush has been late in explaining why he thinks job creation is lagging and in fighting what’s become almost a hysteria about “outsourcing,” the pattern of U.S. corporations’ moving plants and jobs abroad.

Despite assertions by commentators such as CNN’s Lou Dobbs that the United States is in danger of becoming a “Third World country” because of outsourcing, the Forrester Research Institute says that, of the 2.7 million jobs lost since 2001, only 300,000 have gone abroad.

Kerry has been exploiting the mania by accusing Bush of “sending jobs abroad” and vowing to “end the unpatriotic practice” by corporations of moving offshore to escape taxes. A longtime advocate of free trade, Kerry also is promising to “review all U.S. trade agreements,” suggesting a protectionist turn.

As almost every responsible analyst has pointed out, the main culprit responsible for slow job growth is productivity — companies are using technology to do work that employees used to do and avoiding having to pay health insurance and other benefits in the process.

Bush began only last week in a speech in Ohio to explain that “this is a time of transition, a time of change” in the economy, and he said that “America must remain the best place in the world to do business.”

He also began blasting Kerry, though not by name, for promoting “economic isolationism,” along with higher taxes and more regulation, that would discourage investment and endanger the jobs of 6.4 million U.S. workers employed by foreign companies.

Kerry actually has a better jobs plan than Republicans will give him credit for, including much greater investment in education and research and development than Bush offers.

At the end of the day — that is, in November — what really counts is whether the jobs picture actually has improved. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan says it will. The new Manpower survey of corporations predicts it will. White House aides say they expect an increase of 140,000 jobs “over the next couple of months.”

One thing seems sure: If the jobs picture does improve, Bush 43 will make sure the world knows about it. That’s one lesson he learned from his father.