WASHINGTON -- President Bush works fervently to avoid the missteps that bedeviled his father during the last recession. But as Bush negotiates an economic stimulus package with Congress, the strategy presents him with a Hobson's choice.
The first President Bush was broadly perceived as being unconcerned about the jobless during the 1990-91 recession and was judged by conservatives to be insufficiently committed to tax cuts; the current president has been sure in recent weeks to express frequent concern for the jobless, while keeping his conservative base happy with an intense focus on tax cuts as an economic cure.
But political analysts say Bush will find it difficult to stick to this strategy when it comes time to reconcile a House bill packed with tax cuts and a Senate bill loaded with spending. On one side of the president are GOP conservatives who favor a vast package of tax cuts that delight the party's faithful. On the other side are Democrats demanding more government spending to aid the unemployed -- and eager to use the issue to frame next year's elections.
As much as terrorism at home and war in Afghanistan dominate public attention, Bush knows from his father's experience that the next election -- a year away -- could be dominated by economic matters. The first President Bush saw stratospheric poll ratings from the Persian Gulf War plunge when the economy entered a recession.
"Bush and his advisers are walking a real political tightrope here," said Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, which advocates lower taxes. "You can't have both. You can't appease (Senate Democratic Leader Thomas) Daschle and (House Democratic Leader Richard) Gephardt and take care of the right-wing base at the same time."
Moore, like many other conservatives, believes they have "turned the White House around" in favor of a one-year, $100 billion tax-cutting plan drafted by House Republicans rather than a blend of spending and tax cuts. A couple of weeks ago, House conservatives complained the president was "hanging us out to dry." But now, Moore said, Bush has realized "he has to guard against losing conservatives."
Democrats, however, believe Bush and Republicans will suffer for failing to offer more aid to the unemployed. They favor about $17 billion to subsidize the cost of health benefits and $15 billion for extra unemployment benefits. "This is a case of the impossibility of Bush squaring the rhetorical circle," said Jim Jordan, who is directing the Democrats' efforts to hold the Senate in 2002. "He puts out kinder, gentler words about concern for the unemployed, then he puts out a stimulus package wholly skewed toward the interests of business. It's one more attempt at the old Republican standbys."
In recent weeks, Bush has proposed aid to the unemployed and a willingness to provide tax rebates to workers who pay only payroll taxes. But he has also insisted that the stimulus package contain mostly tax cuts, especially after Republicans on Capitol Hill complained that his message was not forceful enough. In a Rose Garden appearance earlier this month, Bush suggested he wanted one-year tax cuts of $60 billion to $75 billion.
The fine line was demonstrated earlier last week when Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill was quoted as saying a $100 billion version of the plan passed by the House Ways and Means Committee was "more than we'd like." O'Neill dismissed some of the elements passed by the panel as "show business" intended to impress constituents.
Then, a day later, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Bush "will urge members of both parties to support it," but the White House expects the package to be reshaped in negotiations with the Senate.
The president's father was wounded by five months of tangling with Democrats on how to help victims of the recession in the early 1990s. Polling in October 1991 showed that nearly half of those questioned said Bush cared more about serving upper-income people, while only 8 percent said he was more concerned about the poor and middle-income workers.
At least rhetorically, Bush has been far more assertive than his father in recognizing the plight of the unemployed. "Any Americans out of work is too many Americans out of work," he said on the White House lawn on Sept. 7.
Rich Bond, who was Republican national chairman during the first Bush presidency, predicted that such visibility on the economy will allow the president to overcome the perception problem his father had. "The difference between Bush One and Two at this point is that while both were war presidencies for a period of time, Bush Two is seemingly staying more publicly attached to concerns of the domestic economy," he said.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.