Bush, Democrats Watch a Key Campaign Number: Jobs

Times staff writers

President Bush and the Democrats vying to succeed him have finally found something to agree on when it comes to campaigning about the economy: It will all be about jobs, or rather, the dearth of them.

Although Bush received good news this week -- that the national economy grew at a fast clip in the third quarter -- neither he nor the Democratic presidential candidates are convinced that the 7.2% growth rate can be sustained.

Unless more jobs are created, Democrats believe, the president could remain vulnerable as he seeks reelection a year from now. Nearly 2.6 million jobs have disappeared since Bush took office, though the causes reflect long-term trends that began before he arrived in Washington.

The red-hot growth rate undoubtedly provided a source of good cheer in a White House that has seen little good economic news. Indeed, as the numbers were about to be released in Washington, the president seemed to have an extra spring in his step Thursday morning as he prepared to board Air Force One here, en route to Ohio.

To a crowd of office workers at a Waco-area airport, Bush uncharacteristically blew them a kiss.

But rather than crowing, Bush intends to keep a cautionary note in coming days, starting today with campaign appearances for Republican gubernatorial candidates in Mississippi and Kentucky. Aides said he would tout the wisdom of his remaining economic agenda, while crediting his two across-the-board tax cuts for the rebound.

"The president is optimistic about the direction that [the economy] is moving. But he is not satisfied because there are people who are still looking for work who cannot find a job," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Friday.

Bush sounded guarded, telling factory workers in Columbus, Ohio, Thursday: "We cannot expect economic growth numbers like this every quarter."

On Friday, one senior Bush political strategist echoed the president's call for congressional enactment of his "six-point plan" for further economic revival. The plan includes a national energy bill, medical liability reform and trade expansion.

Bush's caution seems well-placed. The Commerce Department reported Friday that consumer spending dropped by 0.3% in September -- the largest monthly drop in a year, after growing by 1% in July and another 1.1% in August.

And Democrats on the campaign trail are reminding voters that more than 2 million jobs were lost during the last three years.

"Bush's father was so snake-bit by the economy that his son is exceptionally cautious about crowing about good news," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "He remembers firsthand how quickly this can turn around and [how] a big plus can turn into a big minus in a hurry."

Sabato said Bush is well-advised to guard against inflating public expectations. "What he doesn't know is if a substantial number of jobs will be produced."

The challenge facing Bush was vividly underscored during his Thursday afternoon appearance at the Central Aluminum Co. in Columbus.

He carried the state in the 2000 election by a 50%-46% margin over Democrat Al Gore. But like many industrial states, Ohio has suffered huge job losses in the manufacturing sector since Bush took office, losing some 67,000 nonagricultural jobs in the last year.

The president today plans to deliver his two-pronged message on the economy at two stops each in Kentucky and Mississippi as he campaigns for Rep. Ernie Fletcher and Washington lobbyist Haley Barbour, who are running for governor in those respective states Tuesday.

Briefing reporters here Friday, McClellan said the president will highlight additional "positive signs" that the economy may be recovering, pointing to low interest rates, increased housing starts, high productivity and a growth in business orders.

Democrats were not convinced, however.

"This week's GDP figure is very good news" for Bush, conceded commentator Paul Begala, a former advisor to President Clinton. "But does it translate into votes? In order to translate into votes, it has to translate into jobs.... And it's very, very unlikely he goes into this election with a net increase of jobs in his presidency."

Bill Carrick, a strategist for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, said one quarter's growth rate does not a recovery make.

"The question is whether they've done anything that has lasting, permanent value, or is this a onetime blip?"

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said if Bush were to claim credit for the increased economic growth rate, "he must also be responsible for the more than 3 million jobs lost, a record deficit of $347 billion and a 40% increase in the unemployment rate during his tenure."

But former Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), now director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said Democrats should be careful how they use the latest economic numbers, too.

The possibility of an economic rebound, he said, means all the more that Democrats cannot afford to be "perceived as just constantly carping on the bad economy.... Democrats have done well when they've had an upbeat, positive message."

Bush is scheduled to attend another million-dollar fundraiser for his reelection campaign Monday in Birmingham, Ala. He is set to return to his ranch in Central Texas that night and then head to Southern California on Tuesday to assess damage from wildfires.

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