Tuesday 16 December 2003

Bush is still in a real hole

Let's just hope Junior screws himself before he screws the world. America, time to wake up....

The US president is facing a financial nightmare of his own making, and needs all the good news he can get

The Bush administration must take care not to spend High Value Target Number One all at once by letting a mob hang him this week. The president was too quick to declare Mission Accomplished on that aircraft carrier last spring; now he can say it's in the bag after all.

But Saddam is only one of the administration's aeroplanes, and the only one so far brought back to the carrier deck. There is still an entire squadron of foreign, domestic and economic policies lost in the clouds. If they don't come home safely, the Republicans might need a bit of Saddam to divert attention during the presidential campaign next autumn. Then they can hang him.

To hear the Republican image makers, the arrest of Saddam makes Bush's re-election next November inevitable. The discovery in the rat hole may indeed undermine the campaign of Howard Dean, who built his credibility and momentum on his early opposition to the war. But there are several other credible Democrats in the race. And there is plenty of time before the real campaign begins in September for the opposition to coalesce around a different candidate.

Meanwhile, of the issues left unresolved, the economy is the most threatening to Bush's popularity. A soaring stock market and an anaemic recovery in employment have alleviated the fear prevalent in the country (and the White House) this autumn. But there is no escape from deficits in the government budget and in trade. Bush is mother of one and midwife to the other. Together they could pull the US into the same financial hole that made Britain an IMF client 27 years ago - and before next year's election.

The dollar has already lost a third of its value against the euro. The decline could accelerate as the world loses confidence in the ability of the US to repay its massive and increasing debts. As a result, the dollars being paid to oil suppliers and to Chinese manufacturers are also declining in value. Might China revalue its currency? Could the oil industry shift to a euro-based pricing system? Either could send American inflation soaring, driving up interest rates. The bond and stock markets would crash. So would house prices and consumer spending.

Bush has engaged in a campaign of voter bribery in the past two years unrivalled in US history. The tax cuts came first, a gift to corporate and upper-income America that will hobble the country for a generation or more. And there were breathtaking increases in farm subsidies to buy loyalty in the heartland.

Illegal tariffs in 2002 on steel imports bought support from coal miners, railway workers and steel unions in the critical states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Proposals last month for duties on Chinese textiles were intended to purchase the loyalty of low-wage workers in Georgia and the Carolinas - even if they offended a nation emerging as one of America's biggest bankers.

The tax cuts have created runaway deficits. The farm subsidies contributed to the collapse of the Cancun trade talks. Bush had to abandon the steel tariffs last week in the face of threats of counter-measures from the EU.

If the economic plane loses altitude quickly before November, there will be no place to land. Remember when the pound nearly reached $1 in 1984? It could soar to $2.50 in six months. Remember when UK interest rates touched 15% in 1993? US rates could shoot up by the election if the central bank has to rush to defend the dollar, as the Bank of England did for the pound before Britain exited the exchange rate mechanism.

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