Here’s a Puzzle

Jonathan Weisman, in today’s Washington Post, wonders why President Bush can’t get any credit for the current strong economy. Weisman notes that Bush’s approval ratings on the economy continue to decline, even as the economy improves. His conclusion is that the Iraq war, which many voters perceive as a disaster, is drowning out everything else. (It’s interesting how, when Bush’s approval ratings on foreign policy were sky-high, pundits kept assuring us that the election would be decided on the economy.)
Weisman does note that there is at least one historical precedent for the current conundrum: the case of President Bush’s father:

Bush is not the first president to suffer from a disconnect between objective economic indicators and voter perceptions on the economy. The economy began growing steadily in March 1991, when President George H.W. Bush registered a 49 percent approval rating on his handling of the economy. But by July of 1992, those approval ratings had slid to an abysmal 25 percent, presaging his electoral defeat three months later.

Oddly, Weisman doesn’t venture any explanation of the first President Bush’s failure to benefit from a smartly growing economy. In 1992, there was no war to drive economic news off the front pages. Actually, I remember those days very well. The fact that the economy was growing rapidly by the end of President Bush’s term was a closely guarded secret. The Washington Post, the New York Times and other mainsteam media simply failed to report, except in the most cryptic, back-page fashion, that the economy was booming during President Bush’s last year in office.
During the four quarters of 1992, GDP increased by 6.7%, 6.2%, 5.9% and 6.7% in current dollars. (In constant 2000 dollars, the percentages were 4.2, 3.9, 4.0 and 4.5) When Bill Clinton said, “It’s the economy, stupid,” he should have been endorsing President Bush for re-election. But the press, almost without exception, reported economic news in 1992 as though the country were in a recession. Economic growth actually slowed after Bill Clinton took office, but hardly anyone heard about that, either.
I think the same phenomenon explains why most voters have no idea that over the last four quarters, GDP has increased by 4.2%, 10%, 5.7% and 7.2% in current dollars (3.1%, 8.2%, 4.1% and 4.4% in constant 2000 dollars).
I don’t know who will win November’s election, but I will venture one firm prediction: if John Kerry wins, the economy will take off like a shot. On the pages of the Washington Post, anyway.

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