- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2001

George W. Bush wasn't confirmed as the winner of the presidential election until the middle of December, and he didn't actually take office until Jan. 20. The economy, however, has been showing unmistakable signs of distress for more than a year. So what would any fair-minded observer conclude about the possibility of a recession? It's all Bush's fault.

Past Republican presidents, facing hard times, have been tarred for failing to fully grasp the misery gripping the nation. Bush, however, has been tried and convicted of insufficient optimism. His critics think that if you can't say something nice about the economy, you shouldn't say anything at all.

Talking about a recession, we are told, is as irresponsible as screaming “Fire!” in a crowded theater. By talking about a recession, we are informed, he may cause a recession. House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt warns that when Bush says the economic outlook isn't good, “this all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter chided “President Poor-Mouth” for his “predictions of doom,” which he says have sapped consumer confidence and threatened the health of the economy.

It's true that Bush has chosen not to play Pollyanna. Since arriving in Washington, the president has been frank about our precarious prosperity. It's also true that refusing to draw a rosy picture serves his own political ends in two ways: He doesn't want to be blamed for something that predated his administration, and he wants Congress to enact his tax cut.

But having impure motives for telling the truth doesn't make it any less true. Reality is that the economy has been looking pale and wan for some time now. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has been sliding since January — that's of 2000, not 2001. The NASDAQ composite index peaked last March and spent the rest of the year in a nosedive.

The broad economy began to sputter in the summer, when gas prices soared and growth dipped to less than half its previous rate — creating fears of rising unemployment. In the last three months of 2000, gross domestic product grew by a puny 1.1 percent, the slowest pace in more than five years.

Critics say consumer confidence is all-important because nervous consumers may decide to cut back on spending — thus bringing on the very trouble they fear. But consumer confidence began rapidly eroding last summer, when Mr. Sunshine was still in the White House.

Besides, the role of mass expectations is grossly exaggerated. In May 2000, the consumer confidence index hit a record high — which, by the logic of Bush's detractors, should have sent growth into the stratosphere. In fact, the economy promptly veered off the runway and into the mud.

It's by no means clear that anyone pays attention to the president's latest statement when deciding whether to lease a new car or buy a dishwasher. The pain ordinary Americans currently feel when they pay the heating bill or check the stock market has much more effect on their actions. Presidents simply don't have the power to affect our prosperity by changing the tone of their utterances.

In any case, the iron connection between what consumers feel and what they do is largely mythical. In recent months, pessimistic consumers have been consoling themselves in the usual fashion of 21st-century Americans — by heading to the mall and maxing out the credit cards. Consumer confidence may be weak, but consumer spending has not been.

By this time, Bush has probably figured out that a president is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. During the mild recession of 1990-91, his father found himself vilified for not taking the slowdown seriously enough. Ronald Reagan's indefatigable good cheer during the painful 1981-82 downturn was taken as proof that he was pathetically out of touch with the problems of real people. His optimistic slogan, “Stay the course,” became a comedian's punch line.

In those cases, Democrats complained because a GOP president said things were not as bad as people thought. Now they are complaining because a GOP president says things are as bad as people think. In the eyes of the opposition, Bush can never be Goldilocks: Whatever he says and does, it will never be just right.

Bush is mistaken to say his $1.6 trillion tax cut — which would provide a microscopic $5.6 billion in tax relief this year — would jolt the economy back to health. Though there are good reasons for cutting taxes, that's not one of them.

But it's absurd to claim that a president should insist that down is up in the hope of fooling his fellow citizens. When the theater is filling with smoke, there's nothing to be gained from denying the presence of fire.

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