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Is This Your Father's Recession?

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Photograph for TIME by Christopher MorrisŚVII

Learning from his father, the President wants to get out the message: I care — but don't blame me for the current slump

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."

But if Bush has figured out that smart Presidents shed tears, he is still learning that his options are limited. Bush's "plan" to jump-start the economy is the same plan he's had since the campaign. Its featured item--a $1.35 trillion, 10-year tax cut--has been enacted into law. Most of those $300 and $600 rebate checks have been sent out. Now Bush must hope that taxpayers use that money to spark a rebound or that the Fed's rate cuts ignite a rally on Wall Street. The other elements of Bush's proposed cure--freer trade and energy reform--face hurdles in Congress and, even if enacted, offer more distant relief.

If that weren't hard enough, Bush must battle the recession while he fights with Congress. Democrats are accusing the other party of recklessly wasting the surplus and endangering Social Security. The White House insists that it can juggle the economy and the budget battle without dropping its focus on the rest of the President's agenda. Bush needs to speak out enough about the slowdown so voters don't think he's detached, his advisers say, but he shouldn't talk about it so much that he keeps the woe on the front page--or worse, adds to darkening consumer sentiment. It's an imprecise balance. In speeches he talks more about how he will "work hard" to get things done in Washington--a reaction to lingering criticism of his 28-day vacation. And aides say he is going to "focus like a laser beam" on the economy, a line lifted directly from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. But at the same time they insist that Bush is not consumed by the fiscal tremors. "We're in an instant-aid society, where every week you have to do something new," says spokesman Ari Fleischer. "He doesn't subscribe to that."

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