Jobs and Politics

LAST week's unexpected jump in the United States jobless figures delivered another blow to President Bush's reelection hopes. Contrariwise, the bad news that unemployment rose from 7.5 percent in May to 7.8 percent in June raised spirits - in politics' perverse way - in the Clinton and Perot campaigns.

As the candidates assess what the economic data mean in terms of the November balloting, they should bear in mind that politics, like economics, has its micro and its macro. Micropolitics has to do with winning the next election. Macropolitics has to do with shaping the nation's future.

This is looking like one of those pivotal moments in US history when Americans recognize that their economy, and the world economy of which it is a part, are undergoing profound changes, and that fundamentally new thinking is called for. The voters want this election to be contested on macropolitical ground. They won't settle for politics whose time horizon ends on Nov. 3.

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Sure, voters want to feel confident that they will have jobs next year. More important, they want to feel confident that they will have jobs and an improving standard of living in 1998; and that their children will have bright economic prospects in 2015.

Do the candidates understand this? Reports of a dispute within President Bush's circle over whether he should project optimism about the recovery or a concerned realism about the obstinate sluggishness suggest that the White House is still caught up in micropolitics. Or, worse yet, that Bush and his people regard the economy as primarily a public-relations problem.

Bill Clinton and Ross Perot both seem to have a clearer sense that the American economy is buffeted by historic global changes, and that the old policy prescriptions - lower an interest rate here, pare marginal tax rates there - are no longer enough.

Whatever questions one might have about the specifics of the economic plan Mr. Clinton recently released, the plan - with its emphasis on education and training, technological advancement, global competitiveness, and debt reduction - marks an impressive attempt to grapple with the fundamental causes of the economic ills of the US. Clinton is talking about the right things.

Although Mr. Perot has been far less specific in his economic plans, like Clinton he appears to recognize that the US economy is undergoing fundamental restructuring, and that today's policymaking must account for tomorrow's generations of Americans.

Can Bush prove himself to be similarly a leader for the future? His retention of the presidency almost certainly depends on it.

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