Yesterday's Washington Post had an opinion piece by Dana Milbank ("In Game of Expectations, Bush Usually Wins") which argued that reducing expectations is a central strategy for George Bush and the Bush Administration. This is the art of talking down your prospects for success to such a degree that any kind of outcome is better than what was expected, thereby earning you credit. All sales departments will recognize that strategy.
"This is a president who loves to be misunderstood," Rich Bond, a Republican party strategist, is quoted as saying.
The Bushies started talking down the economy in December of 2000, even before they took office, when Dick Cheney got on Meet the Press and said there was "growing evidence" that the economy was slowing. "We're seeing it in automobile sales and a lot of other areas, earnings falling off for corporations. And we may well be on the front edge of a recession here," he said. Even then, he was thinking about the 2004 reelection campaign. He needed to be able to pin the blame for any weak economy that might develop in the first term on the guys who were leaving town.
Two and a half years later, we still are looking back at the year 2000 as a high water mark for advertising spending and most other measures of ad industry well-being.
I don't think politicians and economists give enough credit to the role that the president plays in creating the psychology for economic growth. After all, why do people buy refrigerators, computers or common stocks? And, why do businesses build new plants or launch new products? People and businesses make investments because they think the future will be better than the world they see around them. Popular and inspiring presidents created the confidence necessary for great and continuing economic expansions -- FDR during the late 30s and 40s; JFK during the 60s; Reagan during the 80s; and Clinton during the 90s. Presidents who seemed tentative, worried or confused inspired malaise -- Ford and Carter in the 70s and Bush I in the early 90s.
The president's role is all about building confidence so that all sectors of the society and economy will invest in their own brighter future. And those investments themselves are what cause that brighter future. In fact, the genius of America may be quite simply that belief in the possibility of continual improvement -- personal and national -- leads individuals to start new lives and companies to start new businesses, thereby leading to the growing economic strength to sustain both.
Even though Bush's poll numbers have been high, confidence in the economy has been lacking. That's because he has been focusing on other goals.
But all that may be changing now. With the engine of the economy -- ad budgets -- on a growth course again, with upfront ad prices surging in all sectors, with an Olympics and election year coming on strong for 2004, with war and terrorism worries (hopefully) behind us, America is ready for a return to normalcy. And that means a return to optimism and investment spending.
No-one was better than Ronald Reagan at expressing faith in America and confidence in the future. Now, we need that kind of presidential cheerleader again. This is not the time for reducing expectations. George Bush has to get out in front of the emerging positive economic trends and exhort us to greater confidence, to confirm our aborning, renewed faith in that better future. Then, in his 2004 reelection campaign, he will be able to claim credit for the hoped-for expansion we should by then be having. And, four years thereafter, he will be able to say that, as with so much else, we indeed misunderestimated his economic prowess.