I, like most Americans, have been extraordinarily impressed with President George W. Bush's prosecution of the war against the Al Qaeda terrorists. I think it is one of the great strengths of the American system of government that we always seem to find the leader we need in times of crisis. Based only on what we knew about them the day they took office, who would have thought that Abraham Lincoln or Harry Truman would turn out to be among our greatest wartime leaders?
I believe that Bush eventually will join the pantheon of America's greatest presidents. But knowing that should not make him complacent. After all, his father prosecuted a highly successful war against Iraq in 1991, but he was still abandoned by a plurality of voters in 1992. Similarly, Winston Churchill was rejected as prime minister of England in 1945, despite being possibly the greatest wartime leader in modern times.
What did in both Churchill and Bush the elder was the economy. People tend to vote their pocketbooks on Election Day, and they give precious little credit for past accomplishments, especially in the area of national security. One can lament this fact, but it stands nevertheless. Churchill and Bush were defeated by poor economic conditions, regardless of how successfully they may have prosecuted a war.
Right now, Bush the younger is in a situation not very dissimilar to where his father stood in 1991. He has enormous personal popularity but a weak economy. The reality is that no matter how much people may credit him for his actions as commander in chief, they could still reject him in 2004 unless the economy is doing better.
Fortunately for the younger Bush, he has more time than his father did to turn things around before he must go before the voters again. But he cannot waste the time he has, because it takes time to implement economic policies and for them to impact the economy. What he does this year could well determine his electoral success in 2004, given the lags.
Bush would help himself by expanding the universe of his economic advisors. I do not mean to slight his current advisors, whom I have great respect for. I only suggest that bureaucratic, institutional and political constraints sometimes prevent a president from receiving the best possible advice. He should consider following Ronald Reagan's example.
One of Reagan's first actions as president was to establish an Economic Policy Advisory Board comparable to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Several times a year, it brought economic advisors from the private sector into the White House to give him a broader perspective. These included such luminaries as Milton Friedman, Alan Greenspan and Arthur Burns.
As Martin Anderson relates in his 1998 book "Revolution," this board served a number of useful purposes. First, it allowed the president to hear from economic advisors unencumbered by bureaucratic turf. The treasury secretary or Office of Management and Budget director, for example, necessarily must represent their respective agencies and their myopic perspectives when advising the president. While necessary, this can sometimes limit a president's perspective and options.
According to Anderson, one of the greatest virtues of Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board was to encourage him to stick to his principles when counseled otherwise by his own staff. It was a lot easier for Reagan to oppose tax increases supported by his OMB director when he could cite Nobel Prize winner Friedman against this position.
Outside economic advisors also serve another useful purpose, which is to focus the president's attention on the economy. After all, foreign and defense policy matters are often more time sensitive, as they have been since Sept. 11, and it is too easy to put off economic matters for another day. Unless a president sets aside time just for economic policy, especially in times like these, it can easily be put off too long.
Bush would benefit by having regular meetings with private economists. There are any number with Republican/conservative credentials outside the administration who would surely make themselves available if asked.
These include Hoover Institution scholars George Shultz, Michael Boskin, John Cogan, Tom Sowell and Annelise Anderson; Kevin Hassett and Jim Glassman of the American Enterprise Institute; Martin Feldstein and Robert Barro of Harvard; Gary Becker of the University of Chicago; Walter Williams of George Mason University; Bob Bartley of The Wall Street Journal; and business economists such as Larry Kudlow, Arthur Laffer, Brian Wesbury, David Malpass, Alan Reynolds, Wayne Angell and David Hale, among others.