WASHINGTON — Still basking in high marks for prosecuting the war on terrorism, U.S. President George W. Bush is being dogged by economic difficulties.
Bush came to office advocating a new day in government-business cooperation, one that would raise the level of the American economy to new heights. He advocated an expansion of free-trade deals. He proposed a big tax cut that he said the nation could afford and still pay down the debt. He advocated creating personal investment accounts for the Social Security system, suggesting that the stock markets could provide better returns on investments than the government. He proposed more freedom for oil companies to drill, saying it would reduce reliance on foreign oil.
He quickly passed his tax cut. But since that time, the administration has had little success in advancing any of the rest of its economic agenda. Questions are now mounting about the strength of the economic team. Since the shift of control of the Senate to the Democrats and the declaration of the war on terrorism, action on the Bush proposals have been slowed or watered down.
It has happened on a broad front. On trade, on the budget, on Social Security, on energy and even on efforts to make permanent the provisions of his revered tax cut, the president has been put on the defensive and forced into compromises.
He has not paid much of a price for the recession. It was short and mild, and it seemed to have its roots in the terrorist attack. But now the strength of the recovery is in doubt, and there are so many stories of malfeasance and mischief in corporate boardrooms filling the airwaves and the newspapers that every economic analyst is jittery. The closeness of the president and his party to the corporate jet set is sure to be a target of Democrats this fall.
Circumstances have forced the administration to accept radical changes in many of its goals. With the tremendous growth in national security needs and a big drop in tax revenue, Bush’s push to limit spending growth has given way to the biggest postwar expansion of government. He is presiding over a massive swing from budget surpluses to budget deficits. With money tight, the president has failed to get Congress to make permanent the 10-year tax cut, including repeal of the estate tax.
The Bush trade program is stalled because the House leadership failed to get enough support to bring a compromise trade bill to talks in order to reconcile two very different versions passed by the Senate and House. The Democrats have beaten back the president’s efforts to overhaul Social Security — though House leaders will try again this month.
On energy, the possibility of a compromise energy bill still exists, but it won’t have much of the president’s original proposals — including his call for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The president has made progress in moving his deregulation agenda — particularly in the environmental area. His plan to overhaul the tax code is on schedule. But there has been a dearth of high-profile economic successes since the Democrats took control of the Senate. They put an end to the momentum he was developing in the early months.
The lack of success in putting his program in place has frustrated his conservative base. The tax cut was a great victory, but the Bush fans expected a lot more by now.
For the president, it must be a bit unnerving. He seems to be mirroring the history of his father’s presidency — getting excellent marks for leadership in an international crisis but failing to make America grow and prosper. Bush was well aware of his father’s problem when it was happening, and he tried to change it. Now, he may be in the same trap.
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