Little Rock Econothon

December 17, 1992

During his 19-hour econothon in Little Rock this week, the policy wonk that the American people elected as their next president was one happy guy. Was this the after-smile of victory, or a nerd's delight in showing off his knowledge, or a politician deftly signaling a concern for domestic problems that never crossed the mind of his disconnected predecessor? Or was it something else?

At the risk of revealing what may be Bill Clinton's dirty little secret, we will opt for something else. Maybe, just maybe, he was engaged in the televised larceny of George Bush's recovery. Of course, there are lots of people (well-represented in Little Rock) who insist the recession is still with us. But many economists believe the bounce-back is well begun and some wonder when the recovery phase will move into outright expansion.

As President Bush knows only too well, the recovery came too late and too ambiguously to give him a second term in the White House. As President-elect Clinton must surmise, he will gain scant personal credit if the voters ever get the idea that the recovery arrived before Inauguration Day. So it makes political sense for him to postpone such a public perception until he has been sworn in, has presented an economic program and then proclaims the advent of the Clinton Recovery.

The official plot-line for the Little Rock econothon was a little different: The politician who won the White House by focusing on the economy would hold a national teach-in to educate the country about the mess he has inherited. With businessmen, labor leaders, special-cause advocates, experts and politicians offering contradictory solutions, he would then emerge as the final arbiter who would slowly, ever so slowly, make up his mind according to the latest data.

Our more cynical view is that the next president already knows the recovery is here. He is determined to put his name on it and, in his good time, use it to hold down any spending or tax-relief stimulus to a minimum so he can attack the deficit and concentrate on controlling health care costs.

Only in this way will financial markets be reassured and interest rates kept low so the United States can move into the uplands of sustained prosperity and competitiveness. Such an approach will disappoint many enthusiasts who push for vigorous pump-priming now on the dubious assumption that Congress will lock itself into deficit reduction later. But it will fit in neatly with the thinking of the core Clinton economic team -- Lloyd Bentsen at Treasury, Leon Panetta at the Office of Management and Budget, Robert Rubin at the National Economic Council and -- most important -- Bill Clinton in the Oval Office.

Whether the president-elect on display this week was indeed just an open-minded professor juggling ideas or a tough-minded politician preparing the country for his own agenda, the Little Rock econothon arguably fulfilled both purposes. That sounds like a clear success.

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