NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
President Bush and 240 of his closest friends will gather Tuesday in Texas to discuss the economy, in an effort to demonstrate that Bush is paying attention to it -- though the talks aren't likely to produce much new policy.
The President's three-hour-long conference at Baylor University in Waco will bring members of Bush's Cabinet together with business leaders, investors and other invitees from the ranks of regular folks to discuss the economy's health and ways to fix it.
Just don't expect the economy's problems to be solved by one short half-day's discussion in Texas.
"The purpose of meetings is to show the appearance of action without actually doing anything," said Bruce Bartlett, an economist at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank in Washington. "I seriously doubt it will serve any purpose."
In fact, its scheduling is somewhat bizarre -- it coincides with a long-planned meeting of Fed policy makers to discuss their target for short-term interest rates, an event Wall Street and economists will follow much more closely.
Conservatives and liberals alike acknowledged the president's forum was designed, at least in part, to make sure he looks like he's paying attention to the economy. After all, failure to do just that might have cost his father a second term as president.
"They're looking engaged, and that's something his father didn't do," said Les Alperstein, a political analyst at Washington Analysis. "His father kept saying, 'Everything looks OK,' while the majority of the population thought we were in recession because the economy was so sluggish."
And there's a real possibility that the image of White House economic advisor Glenn Hubbard, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and other such smart people busily discussing the economy will actually soothe nervous investors and consumers.
"You can see how fragile this market is. Any kind of straw of hope appears, and people cling to it," said Jitendra Inamdar, a broker with the private client group at Investec. "It can't hurt if they're busying themselves to share their views about the economy -- at least they're busy with something positive."
The forum's credibility could be tarnished, however, if it deteriorates into a partisan love-fest, trumpeting the accomplishments of the current Republican president while bad-mouthing his Democratic predecessor, President Clinton.
Democrats already are on the lookout for such a thing, since Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have recently said the seeds for the latest recession were sown on Clinton's watch -- and none of the Democrats' leaders were invited to the Waco meeting.
"If they were trying to come up with an economic plan that would address the economy's vulnerability rather than their own political vulnerability, they would hold a serious, bi-partisan summit that contains members of Congress from both parties and that can come up with a comprehensive economic plan," Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said.
Still, there's no reason to believe that the presence of, say, Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., would somehow magically make the meeting more useful. In fact, no lawmakers of any political stripe will be present, which can only help the rhetorical tone.
And the forum will host eight low-key panel discussions, at which the president will make only brief appearances, where there would seem to be little need or room for political grandstanding.
"Clearly, there are political aims here, but at least this trade panel is a fairly serious discussion," said James Glassman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, who will participate in a panel on trade and agriculture. "If it descends into a partisan thing, I don't want to travel all the way to Waco in the middle of August, and I'm not planning to do that."
Was the tax cut a blessing or a curse?
So far, Bush appears to have avoided his father's apparent mistakes -- he gets high marks from the public for his handling of the economy.
He's criticized most, however, for what has been the centerpiece of his economic policy so far, the tax cut he pushed to passage last year.
Bush and Cheney have said that the tax cut was perfectly timed to help the economy return to growth after three straight quarters of contraction in 2001. In fact, Bush has asked for the tax cut, which expires in 10 years, to be made permanent to fuel future economic growth.
But Democrats and other critics have noted that the tax cut, which in part benefited higher-income taxpayers, helped wipe out a federal budget surplus carefully crafted during the Clinton administration, possibly threatening the economy's future health.
"It was a very difficult and very important achievement to get a balanced budget and a budget surplus, which Clinton did," said Roger Altman, a deputy treasury secretary under Clinton and founder of Evercore Partners in Washington. "In the blink of an eye, that fiscal discipline -- which in turn permitted monetary policy to be stimulative and gave confidence to investors and businesses, and had a role in the economic performance of the United States in the late 1990s -- has been dropped."
"The prospect of a $165 billion budget deficit is a very negative development that is undermining business and investor confidence," Altman added.
Other critics are alarmed by the Bush administration's apparent refusal to bend from certain pet ideas -- the tax cut was presented in 1999 as the only logical response to the boom and was re-packaged in 2001 as the only logical response to the doldrums.
"They came in a year and a half ago with a set of preconceived notions, and nothing, no event, no conceivable event, seems to get them to modify any aspect of that," said William Gale, senior fellow for economic studies at the Brookings Institution.
Bush and Cheney are also hamstrung by their close association with big business, especially collapsed energy trader Enron Corp., by questions about Bush's activities at Harken Energy Corp. (HEC: Research, Estimates) and by a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of accounting at Halliburton Co. (HAL: down $0.68 to $13.10, Research, Estimates) during Cheney's tenure as CEO.
And critics have grumbled loud and long about Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who has never gained the confidence of Wall Street, who has been out of the country at seemingly critical points for the economy, and who reportedly isn't even playing well with Bush's inner circle of economic advisors, including Hubbard and Lawrence Lindsey.
"I gave him the benefit of the doubt for a long time, but lately I've just kind of given up on him," said Bruce Bartlett of the National Center for Policy Analysis. "He has a tin ear, and he doesn't have a clue as to what's going on politically."
Still, Bush has been willing to budge when absolutely necessary. He signed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which reformed several aspects of corporate accounting and created a powerful, independent review board to oversee corporate auditors.
Neither Bush nor SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt cared for many of the particulars of this bill, and Bush for some time practically refused even to acknowledge its existence, never referring to it by name and responding only vaguely to direct questions about it.
But Bush backed down and eventually embraced the legislation when it became apparent that Americans were very unhappy about Enron, WorldCom and other corporate scandals.
And he pushed Congress for an economic stimulus package, including the extension of unemployment benefits. That certainly couldn't have hurt economic growth, regardless of what impact it eventually might have on the budget.
"He can't control monetary policy, so he's pushed through the only thing over which he's had power, which is fiscal policy," said Les Alperstein of Washington Analysis. "He pushed through tremendous increases in spending after Sept. 11, all of which was stimulative and still is."
"He's done everything a president could be expected to do," Alperstein added.