Bush Inaction Aroused A Concern for Future

A LITTLE over a year ago, George Bush had the highest cumulative public approval ratings of any president since modern polling began.

Since then, he has suffered the most precipitous drop in polling history - nearly 60 percentage points from his peak.

What happened?

Mr. Bush has not changed course or made any disastrous blunders in that time. The economy is slow-to-stagnant, but the actual recession ended over a year ago.

As Bush regularly points out in frustration, the economy is not bad enough to justify the widespread pessimism about it that has swamped his presidency.

Instead, the immediate problems of scarce jobs and stagnant pay seem to summon up more-profound fears about the direction, security, and competitiveness of the American economy.

The fast and total transformations of the world scene, while well-known companies at home go out of business, may be worsening a sense of economic insecurity.

"Some relatively short-term unpleasant circumstances - we're not in any Great Depression - have focused people's attention" on longer-term problems, says Dick Sweeney, a business professor at Georgetown University. These stretch into a litany of woes: the federal deficit, the rising cost of health care, the failures of education, a deteriorating infrastructure, stagnant growth of wages, growing inequality, homelessness, tough competition from Japan and Germany, and an urban underclass.

The list goes on, but the gist for most Americans is "a progressive sense that things are not getting better and better as people had come to anticipate in the '50s and '60s as part of being an American," says Harvard professor Francis Bator.

Bush took office in the last years of what Republicans called the longest peacetime economic expansion in history. Historians view his election as, in many ways, a third Reagan term. It brought no clear mandate, and voters seemed to want a president to merely manage and consolidate the Reagan revolution.

When the long, slow boom finally ended, the Gulf war completely absorbed the nation's attention and held its allegiance to the president. But when it was over, the deeper insecurities rose to the top of public consciousness as the economy showed little or no progress month after month.

The president and his aides minimized the downturn to keep confidence and spending up. The effect, however, was to appear oblivious to the deeper concerns.

The insecurity and extra unemployment that the recession brought, especially in New England, New York, and California, says Dr. Bator, "came on top of 20 years of very slow growth in real wage rates and real incomes."

"It is bizarrely ridiculous to blame George Bush for the recession," says Dr. Sweeney. But Bush has not faced those problems and done anything about them, he adds.

"His domestic economic program was pretty much `Hang on and enjoy the backdraft of the Reagan years,' " says Henry Nau, an economics professor at George Washington University.

The underlying condition of the economy, like the short-term picture, may not be nearly as bleak and insecure as people believe. US industry is now in strong competitive shape when demand picks up again. In the 1980s, manufacturing productivity grew faster even than during the 1950s and 1960s, says Dr. Nau. "American industry is ready to respond. It's lean and mean." It has also been producing close to three times the return on investment of the Japanese.

BUT the US financial system has deteriorated under an overload of poor-quality public and private debt. Fourteen months after the end of a recession, US households are still paying down their household debt.

Most jobs are now in the services, which have been through a historic flood of new workers for two decades now as the population grows, women have entered the work force, and manufacturing requires fewer hands.

With the work-force boom slowing, service industries are likely to continue creating jobs, wages to go up, and employers to raise productivity, says Nau.

Most debate centers on stimulating growth by cutting taxes or funding investment by cutting the deficit.

Both camps are well represented in the Bush administration. Former Reagan adviser Martin Anderson says it "is a half-hearted policy."

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