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Ford's Economic Record Belies His Reputation

President Gerald R. Ford, left, in 1974 with Alan Greenspan, chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers.
President Gerald R. Ford, left, in 1974 with Alan Greenspan, chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers. (By Nick Ut -- Associated Press)

In March 1975, Ford signed into law a bill that provided individuals with a 10 percent rebate on their 1974 tax liability, a fattened standard deduction, and a temporary $30 tax credit for each taxpayer and dependent. For companies, the investment tax credit was temporarily increased to 10 percent.

Ford also accepted spending increases that he originally opposed. When, early on, Congress passed an anti-recessionary spending package, Ford was urged by his economic advisers to veto it. But he solicited other advice, including from his political staffers and Democratic economists such as Walter Heller and Arthur Okun. They told him the economy needed a boost. So Ford executed what his press secretary Ron Nessen termed a "179-degree" turn and signed the measure.

By 1976, these controversial efforts to rev up the economy had begun to pay off. When Ford ran for president, the economy was showing signs of recovery. Unemployment had dipped to about 7 percent, inflation had abated to 4.8 percent, and the gross national product was humming along at a robust rate of growth.

"We were headed in the right direction," Ford later boasted.

Ford offered other ideas that might have benefited the economy even further. He proposed a long list of deregulatory measures, for industries ranging from trucking to airlines, as a way to make the economy more efficient. They didn't come to fruition until after he left the White House, however. His efforts to increase energy supplies also foundered on Capitol Hill.

The economy faced tough times after Ford left office. An oil embargo further fueled inflation until Paul A. Volcker, the new chairman of the Federal Reserve appointed by Ford's successor, Carter, began a painful increase in interest rates that finally squeezed rapid inflation out of the system but also threw the economy into recession and caused unemployment to skyrocket.

Finally, under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, a full-fledged recovery got underway -- and it is that recovery that has stuck in the public mind as the real end of the disastrous economy of the 1970s. Ford's own temporary economic uptick had been so uneven and came so late in his short stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. that it went largely unheralded.

Voters focused instead on a non-economic issue: Ford's unconditional pardon of Nixon. After issuing that pardon, "he could not convince the American people that he deserved another shot at the presidency," said Bernard Firestone, a political science professor at Hofstra University and an organizer of a Ford retrospective.

Nevertheless, Firestone predicted that historians will eventually see Ford "as a much more capable president than the public gave him credit for," in large measure because of his economic policies.

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