Closing out 2003

Posted: Dec 30, 2003 12:00 AM

To close out 2003, here are some scattered observations and predictions, all based on the same assortment of public opinion surveys this column discusses each week.

First, some observations:

-- As the year ends, there is a small crack in the believed monolithic support among Democrats for Howard Dean. The cumulative weight of Dean's controversial public comments is giving some of the party faithful nervous pause about his ability to take on President Bush next November. Benefiting from this seems to be another Democratic hopeful, Gen. Wesley Clark. He's spending the final days of the year campaigning in the South, where he is likely to find his most receptive audience.

-- Economically, 2003 is ending in a crescendo of upbeat notes. However, our surveys show that average Americans aren't as drunk on the good news as Wall Street commentators are. Retail sales are up in some sectors but down in others. The critical question for the coming months is whether U.S. corporations finally will loosen their purse strings and start investing in new research and new American workers.

-- The good economic news and the capture of Saddam Hussein made for boosted poll ratings and a happy year's end for President George W. Bush. But the White House needs to monitor two potential problems in the coming year. The first is arrogance. It's no secret in Washington that when things go well for this administration, its officials and staff members usually display a high hand with Congress and the media. Administration higher-ups can ease this unnecessary tension by following the gracious example set by the two at the top -- the president and first lady. A second front for caution is the White House's over-coziness with corporate America. A major Democratic strategy this year will be to paint the Bush administration as a tool of the leading energy, health care and financial companies. The year 2004 needs to be the start of a new era in which the executive branch lets these private powers carry their own water.

-- Socially, there looms a new round of racial tension with the potential to mirror the divide created over the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson episodes. This time, the flash-point names may be African-Americans Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson. They both face criminal trials in which the juries will probably be composed of mostly whites. Both cases could trigger gender and racial rifts in America. Our research shows that white women are by far the most passionate demographic group in believing both men are guilty. This is ironic, given that white women are often the most open-minded about race relations of any group in public opinion surveys.

Now, a few predictions. This is a dangerous game, of course, but the start of a new year provides the opportunity for some fun, so here goes:

-- The best guess here is that Howard Dean will manage to hold on to enough early primary and caucus states to avoid a surge by Wesley Clark or Richard Gephardt, and thereby win the Democratic nomination. His nomination will create pressure to put the moderate military veteran Clark on the party's ticket as the vice-presidential nominee. But I'm guessing Democratic kingmakers will understand that a ticket without Washington experience could spell disaster. My surprise prediction for the No. 2 spot is Missouri's Richard Gephardt. He would provide a certain personal warmth, not to mention federal government experience and at least one Midwestern state for the Democrats' electoral vote ledger.

-- The general election: The possibility of unforeseeable, cataclysmic international happenings make this hard to handicap. Big events could even change minds that are now made up. But you'd be wrong if you believe President Bush would be politically damaged by -- God forbid -- another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. That aside, expect Howard Dean to wage a stronger campaign than anticipated. Among the most populous states, look for Californians to ignore the Arnold Schwarzenegger factor and go Democrat, as will New York state. Texas will go Bush, of course, as will Georgia and, yes, Florida, too. That will be enough to keep him in the White House.

-- Economically, I think unrealistic expectations will cause some disappointment early in the year among Wall Street's fickle investors. But overall, companies will continue to rebound, and a reasonable growth rate for the calendar year can be expected. Look for the second half of the year to be more robust for the stock market and for the Federal Reserve to lay low in an election year. The big economic issue will be jobs, if for no other reason than the media will make it so.

-- On the social front, the guesses may be a bit more wild. Michael Jackson will be found guilty, and Kobe Bryant not guilty (the evidence in the latter case is just too flimsy). And for good measure, here's predicting that Scott Peterson will find his way to the slammer.

For 2004, this much seems certain: It should be a year that provides plenty to write and survey about.