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Bullish, Bearish Bush
By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page A27
That was a looser President Bush who came before the press on Monday. The election was over, John Kerry was now history's footnote, and Bush's cockiness was back in full force. No longer did the press corps' questions inspire fear or rage. Bush sidestepped them with ease when he wanted to; he almost seemed to enjoy sidestepping them.
His most obvious sidestep involved his plan to privatize Social Security. Rather than spell out any details of this most ambitious project, the president labeled any questions on his plan an effort "to get me to negotiate with myself in public." Since the outcome of those negotiations involves the retirement security of the American people, you'd think they might be privy to some of the deliberations. But the president is on a mission to sell the American people on the idea that Social Security is in crisis. Once they buy into that lulu -- as they did into the notion that Saddam Hussein's arsenal threatened every American hearth and home -- then the considerable reduction in benefits that any privatization plan entails becomes just so much accounting.
In a sense, though, Bush is negotiating with himself. When he's discussing the future of Social Security, Bush is bearish on the future of the American economy. According to the economists who work in his Social Security office, economic growth is supposed to start tanking at the end of this decade, and by 2015, the yearly growth of the nation's economy is supposed to slow to an anemic 1.8 percent, a rate at which it will hover straight through 2080. That's about half the rate at which the American economy has grown since the end of the Civil War.
But the bearish Bush becomes the bullish Bush when discussing the economy in any context other than the future of Social Security. In last week's economic forecast of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, the Treasury Department, and the Office of Management and Budget, everything was coming up roses. Economic growth for next year is forecast to be 3.5 percent, and it is projected at over 3 percent for every year in this decade. "The economy," said Treasury Secretary John Snow, is "on the road to recovery and subsequent expansion." Except when it comes to Social Security.