President not inclined to sugarcoat a crisis

Self-fulfilling prophecy or unflinching candor?

Analysis

March 23, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - There's plenty of awful news flowing from the White House these days.

The nation is in "an energy crisis." The economy is "sputtering." So says President Bush, almost daily, before adding that he knows just the solutions. They happen to be part of his domestic agenda.

The answer to the nation's energy woes? Boost domestic energy supplies - for example, open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling.

The prescription for a sliding economy? A $1.6 trillion tax cut.

The president's alarmist words come even as experts question the severity of the nation's energy problems and point to some positive signs that the economy, while clearly slowing, is not sinking into serious recession, despite the 13.5 percent plunge in the Dow Jones industrial average over the past 10 trading sessions.

"Compared to other cyclical downturns, this is not that bad," said Larry Horwitz, senior economist at Decision Economics, a forecasting firm. "Employment has not turned down. We've been getting job increases every month."

Horwitz issued the same warning delivered by some congressional Democrats this week: When a president waxes pessimistic about the economy, such talk can be self-fulfilling.

"It can create a sense of unease that there are bad things on the horizon," he said.

While noting that a president's rhetoric is probably not the pre-eminent factor in consumer confidence, Horwitz said, "If consumers decide to retrench, and business leaders retrench more than they otherwise would have because of what the president is saying, we can see less spending in the country and less growth."

Even some Republicans are beginning to question whether a steady drumbeat of warnings is the right way to build momentum for presidential policies.

"Doom and gloom just never works," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, who suggested that Bush use a more "instructional" and optimistic approach. Gilchrest likened the president to "the boy who cried `wolf.'"

Americans, he said, may stop listening if they view his warnings as false alarms.

By using the nation's energy troubles - in particular, the electricity emergency in California - to push for oil-drilling, Bush has irritated some Democrats.

"I don't think the country as a whole is in an energy crisis," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"And most people understand there is no connection between digging for oil in Alaska and the availability of electricity in California. [Bush] must feel that connecting the two helps make his case. I don't think it does, for anyone who thinks a minute."

The White House defends its strategy, saying the president is responsible for providing Americans with an unflinching account of the problems facing the nation and proposing ways to fix them.

Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, said the president does not regret pointing to what he sees as threats to American prosperity.

"Why should he?" Fleischer said yesterday. "The president describes things the way they are."

Speaking to women business owners earlier this week, Bush also sought to justify his tack.

"This is going to be a very practical administration - we will view problems, analyze them, and deal with them," he said.

"We'll be as upfront as we can with the American people. We'll explain when we can get something done quickly, and we'll explain when we can't get something done quickly. We're not going to shirk from the problems with which we're confronted. And one of the problems is an energy crisis."

The president's tendency to identify problems as crises marks a departure from his recent predecessors - even his father - who often seemed highly optimistic, even suspiciously so, in addressing troublesome trends. They were less inclined to dwell on America's economic challenges.

Former President George Bush delivered his 1991 State of the Union address with the nation mired in a real recession - and he sounded upbeat.

"Yes, the largest peacetime economic expansion in history has been temporarily interrupted," the elder Bush said. "But our economy is still over twice as large as our closest competitor. We will get this recession behind us and return to growth soon. We will get on our way to a new record of expansion, and achieve the competitive strength that will carry us into the next American century."

And Michael Deaver, who was former President Ronald Reagan's chief image maker, said that despite facing an earlier, more severe recession, Reagan remained generally buoyant. The nation's economic woes were so pervasive, Deaver noted, that Americans did not need to be reminded of them.

"A lot of people were out of work, and that's not the same now," Deaver said. "You didn't have to portray the state of the economy - it was a mess."

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