NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Though President Bush's Democratic challengers have gained some political traction from bad job-market data and growing deficits, the economy seems unlikely to be much of a problem for Bush's re-election campaign in 2004, according to some economists.
Bush's father, who was the 41st president of the United States, lost his own bid for re-election in 1992 to Democrat Bill Clinton, whose campaign manager, James Carville, rallied supporters with the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid."
|Year ||Average GDP growth, first 3Q ||Incumbent party result, presidential election |
|1980 ||-2.4% ||Lost |
|1984 ||6.5% ||Won |
|1988 ||3.2% ||Won |
|1992 ||3.6% ||Lost |
|1996 ||3.9% ||Won |
|2000 ||2.7% ||Lost |
Bush 41 was saddled with an unemployment rate that rose steadily through the first half of 1992, peaking at 7.8 percent in July, leading Democrats to characterize the recovery from the 1990-91 recession as "jobless."
Though unemployment fell back to 7.3 percent by the time of the election and gross domestic product (GDP) growth surged to a dizzying 5.4 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, the political die already had been cast against Bush 41.
Though his son, Bush 43, faces a "jobless" economy of his own -- non-farm payrolls, as measured by the Labor Department, are 2.7 million jobs lower than they were when he took office in January 2001 -- some political economists warned Democrats it would be dangerous to hope the 2004 election will be 1992 all over again.
|Predict the 2004 election
"I personally think the 1992 analogy has been overdone," said Greg Valliere, political economist and chief strategist at Schwab Washington Research, contending that in 1992, Bush 41 was abandoned by his conservative base while Democrats rallied quickly around Clinton.
This time around, however, Bush 43 has the conservative base wrapped around his finger. "He may be the most conservative president of our lifetime," Valliere said. And Democrats still are busy calling each other nasty names.
What's more, the consensus view of the economy's path seems to favor Bush, with economists in the latest Philadelphia Federal Reserve survey expecting GDP growth to average at least 3.7 percent in 2004, following two quarters of expected strong growth at the end of 2003.
"The economy's going to be doing well enough that Bush is going to have a big advantage," said Kevin Hassett, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Hassett, who was the chief economic advisor to Arizona Sen. John McCain during his 2000 presidential run, also said Bush shouldn't worry if unemployment is slow to fall, arguing that unemployment around 6 percent is still historically low.
"Bush's political opponents will have ammunition, but I don't think it will really resonate with voters because the economy is doing pretty well," Hassett said.
Yale economist Ray Fair, who has created a model featured in his book, "Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things," wasn't as certain as Hassett that the unemployment data would favor Bush outright. But he suggested that, if the economy grows at or near a 4 percent rate in 2004, then the unemployment rate is unlikely to get any worse, which could be fairly neutral for Bush.
"Data suggest that, among other things, it's the change in the economy in the year of election that gets a fairly big weight," Fair said.
CNN/Money used Fair's model to come up with a prediction for the 2004 election, assuming the Philly Fed's projected 3.7 percent GDP growth rate for the first three quarters of 2004, growth above 3.2 percent for the last two quarters of 2003, and average inflation of 2.2 percent during the first 15 quarters of Bush's term.
The result: Bush should win more than 60 percent of the vote on election day -- an unequivocal landslide.
Still some hurdles
Of course, there's still the troubling reversal of the federal budget for Bush to confront. Surpluses in 1998-2001 have turned into deficits in 2003 and 2004 that are expected to set new records -- raising again the deficit fears that gave independent Ross Perot so much traction in 1992, drawing votes away from Bush 41.
"In 1992, as now, there are a lot of people who haven't been laid off, but they have a free-floating anxiety that they could lose their job," said David Kusnet, who was Clinton's chief speechwriter in 1992 and is now a scholar with the liberal Economic Policy Institute. "The deficit is a tangible number that shows the government's relationship to the economy is out of control."
Bush 43's recent, unexpected request for $87 billion for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at a time when 9 million are out of work and Bush had just pushed a major tax cut -- most of the benefit of which goes to the wealthiest Americans -- has already done real damage to Bush's approval ratings.
What's more, some economists worry the Bush administration may have hurt itself by pushing to devalue the dollar. If foreign investors pull money out of U.S. markets, then stocks could fall and interest rates could rise. If inflation suddenly starts to boom, then the Fed might feel it has to raise interest rates quickly, which would slow economic growth.
Meanwhile, however much of a factor unemployment becomes, wage and salary growth has unquestionably slowed in recent years, and the Census Bureau reported Friday that median income fell in 2002 for the third straight year. Stagnant wages could eventually weigh on consumer spending, which drives more than two-thirds of the total economy.
"The next few months are really crucial," said Valliere of Schwab Washington Research. "If it's clear by the end of winter to most Americans that the economy has turned, the economy won't be a big negative for Bush. But it's a close call."