Recession Politics

November 10, 1991

After a year of extraordinary triumphs in world affairs, President Bush is returning from the NATO summit to an economy in the doldrums, angry fellow citizens and his re-election suddenly in doubt. What a turnabout! His victory in the Persian Gulf war, his diplomacy in arranging a Middle East peace conference, his initiatives to lower the nuclear threat, his steady assumption of world leadership -- all these achievements fade in the harsh glare of recession politics.

Just ten months ago, Democrats seemed to have squandered whatever chances they had in 1992 by opposing the use of force against Iraq. Yet today Democrats revel in taunting Mr. Bush as he tends to the very presidential business of restructuring NATO and trying to revive world trade talks. Why go off to Rome, Italy, they asked, when there is 11 percent unemployment in Rome, Miss.?

Why, indeed. Mr. Bush is doing what presidents are supposed to do. He is protecting the national security. Yet last Tuesday's elections should remind Mr. Bush that security has many more dimensions than protection against Soviet missiles and Third World tyrants. Security has to do with a citizen's economic well-being and his faith in the social fabric of his country. If he feels his job is gone or going, or his family's physical and moral safety is in jeopardy, he will take out his frustrations on whatever incumbents are available.

This past week, the incumbents included Mr. Bush's attorney general seeking a Senate seat in Pennsylvania, Democratic state legislators branded as high-taxers in New Jersey and a Mississippi governor done in by racial feelings. Next year, Mr. Bush will be incumbent No. 1.

This president -- any president -- has control of the national agenda unless he forfeits it, as Jimmy Carter did 11 years ago when he was unable to deal with Iran's seizure of U.S. embassy personnel. Now the sad state of the economy looms as Mr. Bush's potential undoing.

The Fed can keep lowering interest rates. But if people don't want to lend -- or don't dare to borrow -- there is little government can do to turn the economy around quickly. Extension of unemployment benefits? Just more of the same. Tax cuts? Unlikely to take effect until 1993. Slash defense spending? A depressant. Boost domestic spending? Only at the risk of more deficit.

What is most worrisome is that Mr. Bush might panic as he is prodded by zealots on the left and on the right to prove he really, truly, absolutely is interested in domestic issues and is grieved by all the hurt out there in the economy. The sureness he exhibits in world affairs is glaringly absent when he deals with issues at home. He seems to lack conviction, confidence, even texture. He brings to such matters an aura of artificiality, of contrived bargaining, that is hardly reassuring.

In the end, Mr. Bush's success in safeguarding national security may prevail. But he needs to respond more convincingly to the mood of individual insecurity that seems to grow with every day of recession.

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