It's Iraq, stupid

Posted: May 19, 2006 12:05 AM

Even if you think President Bush deserves the pasting he's getting in the polls on Iraq, domestic spying and other front-page gloom, it's hard to deny he's getting a raw deal on the economy.

Just look at the numbers. The economy grew 4.8 percent in the first quarter of 2006 (and for the 18th quarter in a row). Manufacturing is surging; construction spending is breaking records. The Dow is surging. Unemployment is 4.7 percent - lower than average for the last four decades. More than 5 million jobs have been created since 2003. Personal incomes are up more than 6 percent in the first quarter, and so is consumer confidence. Housing prices have risen dramatically, and - knock on wood - it appears the boom isn't ending with a crash, which means that all that increased wealth won't vanish the way the 1990s stock market boom did. Layoffs are way down; productivity keeps moving up. Blacks and Latinos are starting businesses at far above the national average.

And yet, we're soon going to have to start measuring George W. Bush's approval ratings on the Kelvin scale. Sure, there are reasons why some people are grumpy about the economy - high gas prices, for one. Although this is surely painful for some, its biggest economic effect is psychological. The Associated Press recently reported: "Surveys indicate drivers won't be easing off on their mileage, using even more gas than a year ago." If high gas prices hurt so much, why are Americans driving more?

And if the economy is so hot, why isn't Bush getting credit? In the 1990s, the James Carville catechism "It's the economy, stupid" was hailed as the distilled essence of all electoral wisdom among liberals. Nonpartisan political scientists assure us that economic performance is the indispensable factor in presidential popularity. The main reason Bush doesn't get a lot of credit for the booming economy is almost surely Iraq. The war makes many people feel the country is "on the wrong track" - a view normally, but not necessarily, prompted by a weak economy.

Of course, there are reasons to fret about the economy: growing entitlements, demographic time bombs, health insurance woes, the national debt and the deficit. But these are perennial concerns. If you want to tell me that Americans are vexed over entitlement spending because they've suddenly done their homework, studying the actuarial tables, I'd need some evidence first. The debt and deficit didn't sour President Reagan's boom, nor did fears of a health-care crisis sour President Clinton's.

And yet Bush can't catch a break on the economy. It's just so unfair. If Clinton "created" those 22 million jobs in the 1990s, and if Bush "lost" a few million jobs in his first term, surely by the same standard Bush has "created" 5 million jobs since 2003. Of course, Republican presidents rarely receive such fairness. The media held Reagan responsible for the 1981-1982 recession but merely darn lucky for the boom that followed. Poppa Bush was blamed for the mild recession in 1991-1992, and, even though it ended on his watch, the press credited Clinton with "fixing" the economy in the 1990s.

So here's where I hope to find a pony amidst all the manure. The idea that any White House "creates" jobs is absurd and always has been. Alas, there is no machine in the West Wing basement churning out job openings for welders and ophthalmologists. The $12 trillion American economy is too big, too diverse and too complicated for the government to "run." Sure, economic policy matters, but the crude standard often used by politicians, political reporters and Hollywood betrays their belief in the cult of governmental power. On the (finally) canceled TV show "The West Wing," the economy was like some giant machine humming along, as long as the right man was at the controls. It doesn't work like that. If Bush's plight helps Americans recognize this, the pasting might be worth it.