Gone with the ... economy

t's really a story worthy of Hollywood rather than Washington.

In the first part a son follows in his father's footsteps to become president of the United States and then follows them again by uniting the world to fight an enemy. As happened to his father, the son's political standing, which had been highly suspect to that point, soars and he looks unbeatable.

Unfortunately, the story does not end here. Instead, in the second part the son again follows his father and doesn't notice as the economy sours. He is blamed for the hard times and defeated in his bid for a second term.

The first half of this story has, of course, already happened. George W. Bush's performance on the world and military stages has brought him to the same extraordinary political heights that his father, George H.W. Bush, achieved two years into his term.

But economic events are forcing political pundits to wonder whether the comparisons between the father and son are continuing, and if the second half of the story, and term, has already begun to unfold.

For example, there is now increasing talk about whether the US economy will experience a "double dip" recession – that is, fall backward after seeming to begin to get better – or simply stay mired in the very slow growth of the past few months.

There is also increasing public concern about the stock markets, which are having their worst years in decades. Because so many more people now own securities than was the case under the first President Bush, many Americans who had been feeling good about their economic lives because of stock prices are no longer feeling as certain.

In addition, the budget deficit has returned and is now more than $100 billion, unemployment is rising, many companies are performing not just poorly but also scandalously, accountants once thought of as financial high priests have become the subject of late-night comedy, and the federal watchdog agencies thought to be protecting investments are accused of failing to do their jobs.

As a result, since George W. Bush took office most Americans have watched their nest eggs shrink and their dreams of early and easy retirement fade.

As was the case with Bush I, who for a time basked in the glow of his Gulf War successes, the economy has had little political impact for Bush II in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But that now seems to be changing as the economy becomes a larger concern for more people.

The question, therefore, is whether the extraordinary parallels between the two presidents Bush will continue.

For many reasons it is easy to think this will not be the case. From watching his father, the second Bush certainly learned about the importance of paying attention to the economy and using the political capital he earned elsewhere to develop and implement a plan for dealing with it.

Furthermore, unlike the situation his father faced with Iraq, the younger Bush's efforts to fight terrorism are not over and may need to intensify if he authorizes military action against Saddam Hussein. This is likely to blunt at least some of the criticism he might face if the economy continues to fare poorly.

On the other hand, George W. Bush is likely to discover that presidents have far less ability to change the economy quickly than to act militarily. It is almost inevitable, therefore, that whatever economic successes he does achieve will be slower in coming and will be attributed less directly to administration policies than anything that happened in Afghanistan.

There is also some question about whether the president's economic team is as strong as the highly experienced group that has been advising him on foreign and military policy. It is also virtually inevitable that Congress will be far more critical of what the White Houses proposes on the economy than it has been on the war on terrorism, and far less willing to give him what he wants without making changes.

The story is not over yet. We don't know whether President Bush will be able to garner the same type of support for the military and foreign policy activities still ahead as those that have already taken place. There is no way to tell whether that support will translate into enthusiasm for what he proposes on the economy. And, we certainly have no way of knowing whether the economic storms will pass on their own.

In other words, we don't know whether this story will end up being a classic Washington political tragedy or something with a big Hollywood ending.

• Stanley Collender is national director of public affairs for Fleishman-Hillard International Communications Inc. He writes a weekly column, Budget Battles, for NationalJournal.com.

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