Many voters seem to cut President Bush slack on an economic record that should sink any incumbent. For this Bush owes a big debt of gratitude to Alan Greenspan -- and a tiny tip of the hat to Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl.
Surging gasoline prices, a net loss of jobs during his presidency, record budget and trade deficits, and tax cuts that can be blamed for endangering Social Security are not usually the stuff of political competitiveness. Ask Jimmy Carter. Or the first President Bush.
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, left, and French President Francois Mitterrand in 1993.
But after enduring a verbal pounding by John Kerry on these and other economic facts of life, Bush is running ahead or even in many polls as the American electoral slugfest careens into its final days. The whining about oil supplies and a weak dollar that undermined Carter, or the drumbeat of complaints about budget deficits that plagued Bush 41, seems containable this November.
If they win, Bush's campaign wizards will be eager to explain that this was essentially their doing -- the result of the national security theme trumping the economic self-interest message. And there is enough truth in that view to grab history by the lapels. But it is not the whole truth, which involves the complex interaction of a still evolving global economy that has learned from past mistakes.
History may not disclose its alternatives, but economics is not as disciplined. The global economy would look different -- and much more threatening -- to Americans as they prepare to vote if 12 European nations had not spent the past quarter-century constructing a single currency, the euro.
The relative stability of the U.S. dollar against the euro and of currency markets in this time of global economic volatility has helped keep the campaign focus and heat off Bush's economic record. Sherlock Holmes heard the dog that did not bark. The euro is the currency that did not bite.
Any contribution to Bush's reelection by French and German leaders in deciding back in the 1990s to create a new currency would be unintended, small and silent. But the monetary legacy of Mitterrand, Kohl and others does fit into a broader pattern of fiscal stimulus and interest rate stability that has temporarily anesthetized big chunks of the American electorate to the economic pain that lies on the horizon.
Warnings that the deficit ceiling is about to collapse on the nation do not resonate (yet) as they did when Ross Perot and Bill Clinton picked up on them in 1992. Kerry is partly responsible. He has not made deficit reduction a priority. He implicitly says the burden is still bearable when he takes the revenue to be raised by eliminating Bush's upper-income tax cuts and immediately spends that amount on health care.
The bigger factors shaping Bush's slack -- beyond voters' negative feelings about Kerry -- are the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the recession that was beginning as Bush took office. The uneven progress of the U.S. economy since offers reasons to blame Bush or to exonerate him, as voters please.
Looking into the camera at the end of his third debate with Kerry, Bush summoned both of those factors in telling his national audience: "We've been through a lot together." Audacity, thy name is Bush.
But Bush's advisers credit voters with understanding that presidents have little real power over the U.S. economy. "They really ask: How hard does the president try? If we show that he is doing his best in these circumstances, we will win," one senior Bush adviser told me well before the campaign began.
The record low interest rates that Greenspan's Federal Reserve Board has mandated have been essential to keeping economic pain unfelt in the daily lives of American families. Low inflation has also been a powerful anesthetic.
As has been the absence of headlines about plunging or soaring Italian lira, French francs or German deutsche marks. Despite a six-month decline in incoming capital flows, the White House has avoided a much-feared crash landing of the dollar's value that could be blamed on the administration.
There has not even been much talk about this prospect. European market stability enforced by the euro (and adroit currency manipulation by the governments of Japan and China) has fostered a politically useful international complicity of silence on the dollar. Incumbents are doomed to help each other.
Today's leaders of France and Germany may have champagne on ice waiting to celebrate Bush's defeat. If they do not get to drink it, it will be in some small part because of the monetary legacy of their predecessors.