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Bush Father-Son Parallels Begin, and End, on Economy

Politics: The president works to prove himself in a recession--and erase an image created by his dad.

January 08, 2002|PETER G. GOSSELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As a candidate, George W. Bush often seemed driven by a single political motive: to avoid the fate of his father, whose quest for a second presidential term foundered on a recession barely big enough to register on the statistical scales.

So concerned was the younger Bush that he devoted much of his 2000 campaign to pushing for tax cuts as "insurance" against a downturn almost no one at the time saw coming.

Yet having won both the presidency and his tax cuts--and having been proved right about the downturn--Bush has still not shaken the political demons of economic trouble.

Indeed, many analysts think Bush faces a maddening task in the coming year. Despite having acted so decisively in the face of the September terrorist attacks that he erased his stubborn reputation as a foreign policy lightweight, the president now must prove himself all over again--in the economic realm. And he must do so largely by expunging an image created not by him, but by his father--that Bushes don't fully appreciate the pocketbook concerns of ordinary Americans.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 16, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Economic analysis--A Jan. 8 story in Section A about the economic conditions faced by President George W. Bush incorrectly attributed a quote to Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Va. The quote, which criticized how the president's father handled similar economic circumstances, actually came from an interview with Democratic Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina.

"The economy is Bush's soft underside," said Bill McInturff, a partner with the prominent Republican polling firm of Public Opinion Strategies in Alexandria, Va. "His father lost because he had a kind of patrician, 'let them eat cake' attitude. He's sworn not to let the same thing happen to him."

The president starts with some advantages. He confronts the recession in a congressional, rather than a presidential, election year, unlike the elder Bush. He can plausibly blame the terrorist attacks and the anthrax threat, and not poor administration policies, for throwing the economy off. Perhaps most important, he faces a public that does not yet seem deeply worried about the recession, which began in March.

"We're not seeing the kind of heightened anxiety we saw in the last two recessions," said Karlyn K. Bowman, a polling expert with the business-oriented American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

But if Bush begins with a leg up, he still faces some daunting troubles. He suggested as much by devoting his first major appearances of the new year--in speeches over the weekend in California and Oregon--to a combative defense of his economic stewardship, rather than to a self-satisfied review of his anti-terrorism successes.

The dimensions of his economic dilemma are most apparent in the eerie parallels with his father's situation of a decade ago.

Both men were militarily triumphant and enjoyed sky-high public approval ratings. But the senior Bush suffered a three-pronged economic curse that his successes elsewhere did little to help. He was saddled with an economy that stubbornly refused to recover in ways, such as creation of new jobs, that average Americans could appreciate. He advanced an economic policy that set off ideological alarm bells: tax hikes that infuriated Republican conservatives. And he was stuck with a team of economic advisors that could seldom agree.

Although it is still too early to say whether the current president faces a similar fate, some analysts see troubling signs.

"There's a real risk that even when growth resumes, it will be extraordinarily modest, much as it was in the early 1990s," said David D. Hale, chief global economist with Zurich Financial Services in Chicago. "The administration's economic team has shown little interest in doing much about it; they have not been able to carry the ball."

Supporters of former President Bush never tire of noting that the early 1990s recession was the mildest in the postwar period, a mere three-quarter contraction amid two solid decades of growth. Their message: Had it not been for the economic fear-mongering of Democrat Bill Clinton, their man would have won in 1992.

What the supporters tend to overlook is that when measured in ways that most matter to average Americans the recession was anything but mild. It took the jobless rate a full 15 months after the start of recovery to begin steadily declining. It took it almost three years to return to pre-recession levels. And it knocked critical California into a tailspin from which it took years to recover.

The early '90s experience has to weigh heavily on the current president because there's good reason to believe the economy could perform similarly this time around.

"The recovery is going to be slow and sluggish, not rapid and robust. And so is job growth," said Donald H. Straszheim, president of Straszheim Global Advisors in Los Angeles.

Even if growth snaps back quickly, analysts said, it is unlikely to result in companies adding lots of new workers or hiring back those they have laid off. That's because of the unusual, inverted nature of this recession.

Most downturns in the post-war period began when consumers got carried away with themselves and pushed demand beyond supply, setting off inflation and forcing the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates and slow consumption.

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