Three years ago, then-President Ford announced a tough new anti-inflation measure: a sharply pared-back "austerity" budget calling for massive cutbacks in traditional Democratic social programs. His theme: A "new realism" was needed for the economy. The only major question was, could he pull it off?
Next week, President Carter -- who defeated Ford in part becaue of those very austerity policies and then stimulated the economy to create jobs -- will propose a similar set of cutbacks that some out-of-work Ford aides may find familiar. The theme again: "A new reality" for the economy.
The fact that policy once again has come full circle may not be the only irony that onlookers find in the coming round of policy pronouncements. Carter is heading into 1979 facing still another paradox as well -- and the question, as in Ford's day, still is, can he pull it off?
For the first time since the president took office, the administration finally has begun to get its economic policy act together: The White House now is united on the need to fight inflation. Carter has set a tight budget. He's imposed voluntary wage-price guidelines. And he's accepted high interest rates.
At the same time, however, in part because of its past mistakes, analysts say the administration probably has less chance than ever before of pulling off its twin economic goals -- those of dampening inflation and averting a recession late this year and early in 1980.
Indeed, in the minds of many onlookers, the administration is facing a series of serious risks: Its voluntary wage-price guidelines are widely expected to blow up after the Teamsters negotiations in March. The coming recession could well bust the budget. And tight money could worsen the slump.
Moreover, Carter's decisions now could well prove crucial to his 1980 relection chances. The policies the administration sets this month will help shape the economy in 1980. If the administration errs visibly now, there's little it will be able to do to correct its mistakes before the election.
Carter's 1979-80 economic program -- an assortment of policies designed to cover all bases in the fight against inflation -- includes these elements:
BUDGET: An unusually austere budget for fiscal 1980, which begins next Oct. 1, designed to hold overall spending to $533 billion and to trim the deficit to just over $29 billion, down from a red-ink figure of $42 billion or so this year.
The overall spending total by itself is about $16 billion less than would be needed to maintain current programs intact in the face of inflation. But Carter plans to boost defense spending even more than is needed to offset inflation.So cutbacks in most other areas will be even heavier than some had thought.
WAGE-PRICE GUIDELINES: The administration's new wage-price guidelines will prove their mettle -- or else their ineffectiveness -- this year, with enforcement beginning in mid-January after a few start-up snags. Few believe the effort will succeed. But Carter is pushing it anyway, to help slow the increase in wages.
The general expectation is that the Teamsters settlement will wreck the program, but the administration could well emerge only scathed -- not mortally wounded -- from the fray. There's also a battle looming over Carter's new "real wage insurance" tax rebate in Congress.
MONETARY POLICY: Although the White House technicall has no power to affect the Fed's money, and credit policy, top officials have publicly embraced the Fed's new move to high interest rates, with Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal asserting that policy should remain tight until inflation wanes.
Carter's endorsement of the new higher interest rate policy marks a visible departure from the administration's earlier opposition to the Fed's tight-money moves. As late as last summer, the White House officials still were complaining publicly whenever the Fed boosted rates.
TAXES: Carter won't propose any further cuts in income taxes or even rollback of the new boost in Social Security payroll taxes. But the White House will send Congress its proposal to offer a tax rebate as "wage insurance" for workers who may fall behind inflation because of the wage guidelines.
The proposal, scheduled to be unveiled by the Treasury this week, would offer refunds of up to 3 percent of the first $20,000 a worker earns, depending on how far the inflation rate outstrips the administration's 7 percent wage guideline. The plan would cost just under $5 billion if inflation were to hit 8 percent this year.
Congressional leaders already are fearful the House will turn the proposal into a plan to "index" the tax system for inflation -- something Carter considers inflationary.
The series of proposals marks a sharp turnabout from 1978's economic policy prescription.Carter went to Congress at this time last year seeking a tax cut for more economic stimulus and added public-service jobs. And, despite some talk of austerity, the administration eschewed any tough anti-inflation moves.
This year, Carter significantly has made fighting inflation his No. 1 priority, coupling budget-tightening with the new wage-price guidelines program and a push to trim back government regulations -- all aimed at easing business cost pressures. To some, it's a born-again version of economics' oldtime religion.
In a large measure, it has been the administration's own mistakes in 1977 and 1978 that have forced Carter policy makers into this year's austerity programs. Lack of White House attention to the worsening inflation problem helped drive the dollar down. And many of Carter's 1977-78 actions exacerbated the spiral.
It was the need for the emergency dollar-rescue plan last November, however, that really cemented administration policy for 1979. Once that step was taken, it was almost too late for Carter to turn back. To make the dollar-rescue credible, a tight budget was needed. The rest followed suit.
Concidentally, the change of direction falls into line with the policy prescription most economists had been urging anyway. Even if inflation hadn't speeded up, the economy alanalysts were worried about overheating. And the jobless rate has fallen far faster than expected.
The alarming speedup in inflation also resolved another one of Carter's big problems: It united his economic advisers and political lieutenants on the seriousness of the wage-price spiral -- and the need to act boldly to try to do something about it.
In the minds of many analysts, the political-economic split -- along with Carter's own refusal to recognize inflation as the paramount poblem -- had been a major cause of the confusion that characterized administration economic policy in 1977 and 1978.
Now, the administration appears to have begun to get its act together. Even house liberals such as Vice President Walter Mondale and domestic staff chief Stuart E. Eizenstat are spouting the anti-inflation line. And the fiscal 1980 budget due out Jan. 22 will show the results.
The question is, now that the administration has united behind a single, reasonably coherent policy, can it succeed in making its plans work? To some analysts, the wheel-spinning Carter did in his first two years in office only made inflation more difficult to deal with. The odds are tougher now.
There are these problems:
Carter's new pledge to hew to a $30 billion-or-under budget deficit -- the heart of his new austerity program -- may well go down the drain if the economy falls into a recession, with neither Congress nor the administration likely to be able to control it.
Any time the economy slows markedly, federal spending increases because the government has to pour more into unemployment benefits. At the same time, tax receipts are apt to be down sharply. And Carter's $30 billion figure is based on an economic forecast most analysts consider unrealistic.
The nation's inflation problem is likely to prove more stubborn than it would have a year ago -- not only because the price spiral is moving more rapidly than it was last year, but also because the more rapid price increases have been "built into" higher wage boosts.
Moreover, many of the inflationary measures Carter endorsed -- or at least did not fight -- in 1977 and 1978 now are beginning to take root. Among them: the recent rise in payroll taxes, a higher minimum wage level, expensive farm subsidies and price boosts for sugar and milk.
If the guidelines program fails, it could set off a new round of wage and price increases in anticipation of mandatory controls. More importantly, Congress might be prodded into giving Carter controls authority if the current effort goes down the drain.
The economy could be buffeted by international pressures that aren't really under Carter's control -- such as a new run on the dollar, which could add substantially to the domestic inflation rate. Any new moves in that direction would require even tighter policies here at home.
Carter also soon will have to face a decision over how rapidly to phase out controls on crude oil and gasoline prices -- issues policy makers agree the White House must confront but finds diffcult to do quickly with the current inflation. Almost anything Carter does will prove controversial.
Admittedly, there's always a chance that the administration may succeed in its 1979 policies -- that inflation will wind down a bit, that the economy won't fall into a recession and that the dollar will recover its earlier losses.
As the nation heads into 1979, the odds still are stacked against the administration's new efforts. But the next few months will tell whether Carter has acted in time to get his economic policy house in order, or whether it's too late. As in the case of Gerald Ford, his re-election chances may depend on the outcome.