George W. Bush usually likes to have a little fun at Larry Lindsey's expense. As the President's chief economic adviser, Lindsey must trek downstairs to the Oval Office three days a week and brief his boss, the Vice President and other top aides on the state of the American economy. Lately, Lindsey has barely been able to get a word out of his mouth before the President starts giving him grief. "When are you gonna bring me some good news, Lawrence?" Bush asks with a wink or a grin. "Any good news today, Lawrence?"
But last week the news was so bad that Bush was hardly in a mood to kid around. The nation's unemployment rate, which had remained steady--and low--while other indicators turned bleak, leaped to 4.9% on Friday, its highest level in four years. Wall Street was raining red arrows as the Dow lost 427 points in just two days--3.5% for the week--while the NASDAQ fell 6.5%. At a noon meeting in chief of staff Andy Card's office, top Bush aides decided to clear the President's afternoon schedule and dispatched him, grim faced, to the South Lawn of the White House to reassure Americans--and the markets--that he was "deeply concerned." They summoned House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate minority leader Trent Lott for the occasion--a deliberate display, says a top aide, "to show that the Republicans remain united." Lott and Hastert stood by as Bush declared, "We've got a plan to get our economy moving so Americans can find work." After he spoke, Wall Street kept going south.
For months the White House has been trying to find the perfect pitch for Bush's words about the anemic economy: showing he is aware but not alarmed, positive but not Pollyannaish. This kind of delicate hand holding may be as much as any President can do to alter the course of a sprawling national economy. Having already deployed his most powerful weapon, tax cuts, and shackled himself to a promise not to spend Social Security surplus money, he is left to temper the worry during the wait. But the longer it lasts, the more the downturn is foreshortening Bush's plans and expectations, endangering everything he wants to get done in office. The downturn has taken chunks out of the magical budget surplus, threatening the President's plans to reform education and rebuild the military. Suddenly there's talk of a second Bush recession.
Although Bush was flanked by Vice President Dick Cheney and G.O.P. congressional leaders, the far bigger presence on the South Lawn Friday was the memory of his father, whose perceived lack of concern for average people during the last recession cost him a second term. Faced with the 1990-91 downturn, "41," as his son calls him, wasn't much for feeling people's pain or offering them relief. Washington should stand back and "let the economy right itself," the former President used to say, and it eventually did--just in time for him to lose. The elder Bush's belated attempts at empathy were feeble and sometimes laughable. In a famous photo op in 1991 to send the message to consumers to spend, he bought some tube socks. On a visit to economically devastated New Hampshire, Bush Sr. sounded like an automaton when he uttered the words, "Message: I care." The son is different, say aides. "He's learned his father's lesson," says a senior White House aide. "The American people need to see you, and you need to show them that you care."