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Bullish, Bearish Bush

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page A27

That was a looser President Bush who came before the press on Monday. The election was over, John Kerry was now history's footnote, and Bush's cockiness was back in full force. No longer did the press corps' questions inspire fear or rage. Bush sidestepped them with ease when he wanted to; he almost seemed to enjoy sidestepping them.

His most obvious sidestep involved his plan to privatize Social Security. Rather than spell out any details of this most ambitious project, the president labeled any questions on his plan an effort "to get me to negotiate with myself in public." Since the outcome of those negotiations involves the retirement security of the American people, you'd think they might be privy to some of the deliberations. But the president is on a mission to sell the American people on the idea that Social Security is in crisis. Once they buy into that lulu -- as they did into the notion that Saddam Hussein's arsenal threatened every American hearth and home -- then the considerable reduction in benefits that any privatization plan entails becomes just so much accounting.

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In a sense, though, Bush is negotiating with himself. When he's discussing the future of Social Security, Bush is bearish on the future of the American economy. According to the economists who work in his Social Security office, economic growth is supposed to start tanking at the end of this decade, and by 2015, the yearly growth of the nation's economy is supposed to slow to an anemic 1.8 percent, a rate at which it will hover straight through 2080. That's about half the rate at which the American economy has grown since the end of the Civil War.

But the bearish Bush becomes the bullish Bush when discussing the economy in any context other than the future of Social Security. In last week's economic forecast of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, the Treasury Department, and the Office of Management and Budget, everything was coming up roses. Economic growth for next year is forecast to be 3.5 percent, and it is projected at over 3 percent for every year in this decade. "The economy," said Treasury Secretary John Snow, is "on the road to recovery and subsequent expansion." Except when it comes to Social Security.

Sometimes, the bullish Bush and the bearish Bush lurk in the same argument. When Bush extols private accounts, he and his fellow privateers note that stock investments have tended, in the long run, to produce an annual return of about 7 percent and can be counted on to do so in future years as Social Security falters. But that 7 percent figure assumes that economic growth continues at its historical rate. If growth falters as drastically as Bush's Social Security actuaries project, then the rate of return on stocks should falter too. If the United States is facing a future of economic stagnation, it will drag down stocks just as much as it will social insurance.

Bush claims his reelection was a mandate for Social Security privatization; he raised the topic, he reminded reporters Monday, at one campaign stop after another. But precisely because he didn't "negotiate with himself in public" -- that is, propose any particulars of his plan, and most certainly not any proposal to reduce benefits -- he really has no mandate at all. New polling shows that half the public rejects privatizing the most successful anti-poverty program in human history, which over the past 70 years has transformed retirees from the group with the nation's highest poverty rate to the group with the lowest.

Indeed, now that the prospect of a Kerry presidency looms no more, the American people have returned to judging Bush on his own merits, a turn of events the White House cannot possibly welcome. In yesterday's Post-ABC News poll, Bush's approval rating dipped to 48 percent -- one point less than his disapproval rating. Like most politicians in the Atwater-Rove mode of Republicanism, Bush needs an enemy, real or concocted, to run against. Saddam Hussein was plenty evil, but Bush worked to make him seem deeply and immediately menacing. John Kerry was a mainstream Democrat, but Bush endeavored to make him seem -- well, deeply and immediately menacing. And Bush probably can't privatize Social Security if he doesn't demonize those who will oppose this ideologically driven scheme.

The president needs a patsy. Bush doesn't do very well left to his own devices, if he's constrained to being merely bullish or bearish. It's when he's brutish that Bush prevails.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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