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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Stuart Rothenberg: Where is Bush's Robert Rubin?

By Stuart Rothenberg

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Good economic numbers are about as hard to find these days as an optimistic Boston Red Sox fan. The Dow is sinking. The NASDAQ has already sunk. The surplus is shrinking. Unemployment is rising, and consumer confidence is down. The Japanese economy is getting worse, and Argentina has monetary problems.

No single person could have prevented most of these problems. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who has cut interest rates several times in his effort to stimulate the economy, hasn't figured out a way to get the U.S. economy going again

It is also apparent that the Bush administration lacks an economic heavy-hitter -- like Clinton administration Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin -- who might help turn things around.

Rubin had the ability to reassure the U.S. equity markets, to instill public confidence in the U.S. economy, and to marshal support for dealing with international economic concerns. But nobody associated with the current administration has proven that he or she has the capacity to do the same.

Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill hasn't merely been ineffective in addressing the nation's economic concerns. He has been AWOL, absent without leave. Indeed, I'd be hard-pressed to rebut the argument that New York Yankee right fielder Paul O'Neill has done as much for the economy as has his administration namesake.

It's difficult to imagine a Treasury secretary who has been such a non-player, at least at the public relations level. And public relations are critical given the importance that psychology plays in the health of the U.S. economy and markets.

Much has been made recently of the importance of the White House, rather than the Cabinet, in formulating policy. That's okay if White House aide Josh Bolton is negotiating with Capitol Hill leaders about health care policy, or Karl Rove is helping form the administration's position on a politically sensitive topic such as embryonic stem cell research.

But neither Rove nor Karen Hughes, nor even Vice President Dick Cheney has the credibility on economic policy that Robert Rubin had during the Clinton administration. Even Bush economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey and Office of Management and Budget director Mitch Daniels lack Rubin's clout.

Obviously, the economy's slowdown started before Bill Clinton left office, and the resulting decrease in government revenue has presented President Bush with problems that his predecessor did not have. But the political realities are clear: the President and his party are almost certain to pay a political price from increased unemployment and lower corporate profits.

The additional layoffs that have taken place other the past few weeks are likely only to place more downward pressure on the economy. The president has wisely acknowledged the nation's problems, refused to over-promise a quick recovery, and begun to spend much of his time talking about the need to get the economy growing again.

That's important, since his father blew it politically by telling voters that things were improving when the economic numbers suggested otherwise. The one thing this President Bush can't afford is to be out of touch with public nervousness about the economy.

So where does President Bush now stand? He has become a hostage to the U.S. economy. If it continues to slide, his numbers will follow them down very quickly. If it recovers, he'll have more options, both in terms of additional federal revenue and other policy initiatives.







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