Now that we're in the post-Cold War era, the President's principal responsibility is to be commander in chief of the economy. The problem is, a President doesn't command the economy. Nevertheless, he has to create the impression that he has a plan for keeping the economy on course so there's something for people to rally around. Stick with me, the President can say, and I'll steer us out of this.
For John F. Kennedy, a tax cut was the way to get the economy moving again. Lyndon Johnson relied on the older Democratic formula: Spend more, and build a Great Society. It worked, for a while. Then the economy turned bad in the 1970s, and three successive Presidents struggled to set a new course.
Richard Nixon enraged conservatives when he imposed wage and price controls. Gerald Ford asked Americans to wear WIN buttons, for "Whip Inflation Now." Jimmy Carter seemed to blame the people for the country's economic malaise. Ronald Reagan finally set a firm and decisive course of tax cuts and a military buildup. Initially, the economy got worse. Reagan's response? "Stay the course."
Americans did, because they believed Reagan had defined a strong and clear path for the country. George H.W. Bush defined his course at the 1988 Republican convention: "Read my lips—no new taxes!" When he later abandoned that course, voters—particularly Republican voters—felt betrayed.
Bill Clinton surprised the country when he took office and immediately made deficit reduction his top priority. He proposed a tax hike—and paid a political price for it, too. In the end, however, the move paid off, by convincing financial markets that the Clinton Administration—a Democratic Administration—was setting a course of fiscal responsibility.
George W. Bush set his course back in December 1999, when he announced his tax-cut plan: "a tax cut designed to sustain our nation's prosperity," he called it. That was then. This is now, and prosperity can no longer be assumed. Democrats are urging the President to alter his course. Moderate the tax cut, they say.
"We are now in anything but a robust economy," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., said last week. "It seems to me the President ought to tailor his tax-cut proposal. That's what most of us Democrats are calling for." Indeed, Democrats are calling for Bush to endorse an immediate tax rebate: Send every taxpayer a check for roughly $300. The idea is to jump-start the economy and build consumer confidence.
Republicans suspect that Democrats have another idea as well—to substitute their short-term tax rebate for Bush's long-term $1.6 trillion tax cut. The move for a rebate gives the Democrats political cover. They can claim that the rebate helps solve a real problem—the economic slowdown—and that Bush's tax cut looks like a solution for which there is no problem. They also get credit for supporting a "responsible" tax cut while resisting the President's "irresponsible" measure, which the country may not be able to afford.
Republicans, too, are pressuring President Bush. They want Bush to increase and accelerate his tax cut in order to boost the economy. The President's answer last week in Kalamazoo, Mich.: "Some say my tax cut is too small. Others say it's too big. I think it's just right." Call it the Goldilocks tax cut. It's Bush's way of saying, "Stay the course."
President Bush certainly knows what happened to his father. When former President Bush delivered what was to be his final State of the Union speech on Jan. 28, 1992, Americans were waiting to hear the President's big plan for turning the economy around. They came away disappointed. It was on that night that voters decided they did not want to re-elect Bush.
If the economy slides into recession, Bush the son could start looking a lot more like Bush the father. An ominous sign: President Bush's job-approval ratings dropped 10 points last month in the Gallup Poll, from 63 percent in early March, to 58 percent in mid-March, to 53 percent in late March.
One constituency poses a particular threat: white men. George W. got a solid 60 percent of the white-male vote last year. Eight years earlier, his father's support among white men had dropped to 40 percent, a bigger drop-off than among any other group. Apparently, white men can jump—particularly if there's a recession.
A Republican needs about 60 percent of the white-male vote to win. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan did even better than that, pulling two-thirds of white men in 1972 and 1984, respectively, according to exit polls. Bush the father got elected in 1988 with 63 percent of the white-male vote.
Then came the recession, and white men fled the GOP ticket. Even Bob Dole, the ultimate white man, failed to break 50 percent of the white-male vote in 1996. Bush the son finally got the number back up to 60 percent last year.
If you want to know why Republicans control everything in Washington today for the first time in nearly 50 years, the answer is in the gains they have made among white men. It's just as it was during the Cold War: White men want to look at the President and see their commander in chief. A recession means the commander in chief is losing the battle.