For the White House, the sequel would be a dreaded one: "It's the Economy, Stupid, Part II."
The original Republican horror story ultimately sank George H.W. Bush's bid for reelection. Now, President George W. Bush is determined to avoid a potential replay.
Unlike his father, who appeared not to care about the jobless, the son is stumping around the Midwest touting an improving economy. For proof he is waving a new report from his own Council of Economic Advisers, predicting 2.6 million new jobs this year.
But many economists doubt that rosy figure, expecting less than half that number of jobs to be created between now and the election. As a result, voters will continue to be concerned about the availability of jobs, the tough environment for getting a raise, and economic trends that are hard to stop - like the outsourcing of jobs to such places as China and India. Polls now show the economy is an overwhelming concern of citizens.
"It's absolutely critical. This is starting to remind me more and more of Daddy Bush," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. In 1992 "all of the experts and all of the commissions said the economy would get better in plenty of time for the election, but it didn't."
The White House is trying to paint a different picture from 1992. Monday, it released the annual Economic Report of the President. "As 2004 begins, America's economy is strong and getting stronger," said Mr. Bush. "We are moving in the right direction but have more to do."
Indeed, economists point to relatively high consumer confidence ratings, which is a reflection of the job market. Last week, the government reported a gain of 112,000 jobs in January and a drop in the unemployment rate to 5.6 percent. "About 68 percent of [Americans] are employed, and that's a pretty respectable number," says Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at Wells Fargo Banks in Minneapolis. "But if you look at the net change in jobs since Bush became president, he has lost jobs, and that has not happened since the Great Depression under Herbert Hoover."
Although the White House is projecting much larger job gains ahead, some economists expect he'll be fortunate to see 1 million new jobs by November. "If it's less than 500,000, he will have some difficulty in his reelection bid," predicts Mark Zandi of Economy.com. "At the end of the day, people know if they are working or not and how much of a pay increase they got."
Those economic worries are showing up on Main Street. One in 5 voters live in a household where someone is afraid of losing their job in the next 12 months, according to the most recent Zogby poll.
And it's not just blue-collar workers who are worried about pink slips. Twenty-five percent of people earning $75,000 or more are also worried about ending up on the unemployment line. Those numbers haven't wavered since August.
In 1999, it was only 11 percent. "This is well beyond the bottom strata, way beyond blue collar," says John Zogby. "That's what makes this slowdown and so-called jobless recovery different.
In 1992, when the elder Bush was running for reelection, the unemployment rate stood at 8 percent, although many other economic indicators were pointing to a recovery. Today's jobless rate is significantly lower, but still, Mr. Zogby predicts the current President Bush will face a similarly tough reelection challenge. "Economists were talking about recovery when we sailed into '92.... Then president Bush was deemed out of touch," says Zogby. "So the perceptions of voters are more important than whatever the traditional economic indicators are pointing to."
While the recession ended in 1991, it took an additional 14 months for the number of jobs to bounce back to prerecession levels. This time, 26 months have passed since the recession officially ended, and job creation remains anemic.
That has serious political implications that Bush is well aware of. A recent Quinnipiac Poll found that 52 percent of Americans believe a Democratic administration would do a better job on the economy, compared with only 40 percent for the Bush administration. The poll also made it clear that it's the economy that matters when people walk into the voting booth: Sixty-seven percent said that will be the key issue in deciding how they vote, compared with only 21 percent who say Iraq will be.
Unlike his father, Bush has worked to make it seem as if he understands the pain of the financially strapped. "Bush is a smart politician. He knows that the economy is not his strong point, and he talks about it," says Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute in Hamden, Conn.
Other analysts, including Professor Sabato, contend that Bush still must do a better job in defending his economic record, saying his Sunday appearance on "Meet the Press" was not very persuasive.
Indeed, some voters are unconvinced they should stick with Bush. Jim Frestel, a construction superintendent from Naperville, Ill., "went with George" in the last election. But this year, he says, "I have no loyalties at all." Wearing a white construction hat emblazoned with an American flag, Mr. Frestel vows he'll "go with the guy who will give me the best program" - especially when it comes to the cost of insurance and prescription drugs.
Sabato acknowledges that Bush has some selling to do. "He's got to polish his very rusty skills on the campaign trail," he says. But Sabato also notes that no president can really do all that much. "They do not run a $9 trillion economy, and it's ludicrous to expect them to," he says.
That's one reason Bush is hitting the Midwest, where manufacturing job losses have been high. "We lost more manufacturing jobs since 2000 than any other state," says Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter "Inside Michigan Politics." "No matter what you're seeing in other parts of the country, it's showing up in Michigan."
As he walks through the Jewel Supermarket, Jim Schiermerhorn, who manages rental apartments, says the economy is a big issue. "It matters that there is a good population who can afford to rent." So far, he says, "I am seeing a recovery."