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A Confidence Crisis

As the economy's prospects dim, Bush seems more the boy king than presidential leader

March 04, 2001|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the author of "The Politics of the Rich and Poor." His most recent book is "The Cousin's War: Religion, Politics and the Triumph of Anglo-America."

WASHINGTON — The forces threatening the United States with a major recession can't get the national attention they deserve while our leaders, most notably the new president and dynastic heir George W. Bush and the departed pardoner-in-chief Bill Clinton, indulge in their respective games of trivial pursuit. Maybe somebody ought to give the two of them kid-lettered signs that say "Crumbling Confidence Levels 'R' Us."

From the start, awareness of the new president's inexperience has guided the highest circles of the Bush family, namely father George and mother Barbara. Thus, besides the analogies to previous royal restorations in Europe, there have been media portraits of Vice President Dick Cheney as the de facto prime minister who governs, while George W. handles the ceremonies and kindergarten visits. Still others have likened Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the wise regents appointed in yesteryear's monarchies to hold the reins until a boy king comes of age.

Unfortunately, the parallel is becoming riskier. Recent declines in the University of Michigan and Conference Board consumer-confidence levels, the nose dive of the tech-bloody Nasdaq and the increasing skittishness of consumer spending make it possible, if still not probable, that the props could be sliding out from under the economy. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, in this week's congressional testimony, no longer seemed to have a clear view of what the economy is doing. If he equivocates much longer, maybe he should get to hold the third sign.

Private and international debt is hanging over this country like an executioner's ax, and all Greenspan can do is expound on how we're paying off the national debt. The evidence of history, unfortunately, is that the biggest economic downturns often come after the biggest booms. And if a serious recession is unfolding, its effects could be aggravated by a partial collapse of the record build-up of household debt. Then they could be further aggravated if the country's huge international indebtedness, now growing by some $400 billion a year, leads to a reversal of money flows, as foreigners decide they no longer want to keep their eggs in the U.S. economic basket.

Clinton, the Democrats' continuing image problem, seems to have an attention-deficit disorder: If he isn't in the spotlight, he has a disorder--and he's in danger of turning into the court jester of national politics. His tacky behavior in recent weeks, mostly in the matter of his last-minute pardons of fugitive financier Marc Rich and others, is preoccupying Congress and the media because it proves that Clinton will be just as scuzzy an ex-president as he was a sitting president; and that no other major Democrat can compete with him in the attention sweepstakes, a potential disaster for the Democratic congressional leadership.

The Republicans' trivial-pursuit problem is on both Capitol Hill, where Clinton's misbehavior is center stage, and in the White House, where Bush seems to be having as much trouble thinking clearly as he does speaking clearly. Since his address to Congress Tuesday night and the release of his budget the following day, for example, it has become manifest that his central preoccupation lies in cutting enough from federal spending programs, which benefit ordinary Americans, to convince the public that there's room for his tax cuts, which largely benefit the top 1% of taxpayers.

If the media can put aside its pursuit of how many times Denise Rich, ex-wife of Rich, or other pardon-related folks visited the White House and why, Bush's budget would become the electoral equivalent of the Goodyear blimp moored over an antiaircraft battery. It's that contemptuous of public opinion. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that only 22% of Americans favor making tax cuts the No. 1 fiscal priority; by contrast, 35% say the top priority for the budget surplus should be to increase spending on education and health care, which is closer to the Democratic viewpoint. If the Democrats don't win this one, they have only Clinton, Rich, Roger Clinton and Hugh and Tony Rodham to blame.

As for the fuddled thinking in Bush's fiscal policy, those roots go deep, and both varieties of fuddle--fiscal and day-to-day--help explain both his mediocre job rating and the public's ebbing confidence in its economic future. Web sites have begun to acquaint the public with the president's continuing muddles, which are a little frightening.

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