Is Bush now less vulnerable on jobs?

Signs of a rising economy help offset what had been a key Bush liability, though employment remains soft in areas.

One of the biggest questions surrounding President Bush's reelection has long been whether he would repeat the path of his father - becoming a popular wartime president brought down by a sluggish economy.

Increasingly, however, the economic outlook is looking less like an Achilles' heel for Mr. Bush than a possible advantage, or more likely, a wash.

If last month's burst of job creation - 308,000 new jobs, according to the Labor Department - is a sign of things to come, it could neutralize what many Democrats had assumed would be Bush's biggest vulnerability. For months, as the president has touted positive economic signs such as low interest rates and high home sales, Democrats have responded by hammering on the loss of jobs - focusing on the collapse of the manufacturing sector and the flow of jobs overseas. Just last week, in fact, Bush's rival, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, released a new ad attacking Bush on outsourcing.

The economic picture remains somewhat murky: Unemployment actually crept up last month, and Bush may still wind up as the only president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss in jobs. Still, the jump in job creation - the biggest in four years - has unquestionably put the president in a stronger position as he touts his economic record on the campaign trail. If the trend line stays positive between now and November, analysts say the political impact of the issue could be greatly reduced.

"Politically, what you need is from now until November for the numbers to be positive each month," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group. If there are even a few more months with healthy job-creation numbers, he says, "then it becomes difficult [for Democrats] to argue that things aren't moving forward, even on jobs."

Many economic analysts believe the new job-creation numbers are indeed the start of a broader trend - indicating a normal economic recovery, as opposed to a jobless one.

"The productivity rubber band has been stretched as far as it can be," says Ken Mayland, president of Clear View Economics, an economic research and forecasting firm. "We got all the growth we could out of working - or overworking - the existing labor force. To get an increment in economic growth, you need more people working."

Haseeb Ahmed, an economist with Economy.com, is even more optimistic: "The labor market is in full recovery, as opposed to tepid recovery," he says.

Still, Mr. Ahmed offers a note of caution, saying it will take four or five months of strong growth before the turnaround is truly assured. And he and Mr. Mayland note a few troubling signs, such as the fact that the average length of the work week dropped. Typically, employers expand the work week before adding new jobs.

Certainly, there are risks for Bush in sounding overly positive about the nation's employment picture based on one positive jobs report, given the number of Americans who are still out of work. In his weekend radio address, the president called the spike in jobs "powerful confirmation that America's economy is growing stronger." But he also warned the public that many workers will have to be retrained, as certain industries displace others. Bush is scheduled to hold an event Monday in North Carolina proposing reforms in the federal job-training system, to help meet some of these challenges.

Indeed, Democrats argue that much of the public's anxiety about the economy has less to do with overall employment than with the fact that the economy is undergoing a restructuring, permanently eliminating certain jobs and making the future seem far less certain. That, combined with other economic concerns - such as the rising cost of healthcare and the collapse of pensions - makes for a level of insecurity that's likely to persist unless significant reforms are put forward, they say.

People are "anxious about their health coverage, their pensions, about what their kids will do for a living in a world where the jobs they've told them to prepare for might be going to India," says David Kusnet, a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and a former chief speechwriter for President Clinton. "I think people do understand the problem isn't cyclical, it's structural."

A poll released last week by the Los Angeles Times - before the jobs numbers came out - showed that 47 percent of Americans saw Senator Kerry as the candidate who would be "best at protecting the financial security of the average American," while only 34 percent chose Bush.

In the Democratic response to Bush's radio address this weekend, Kerry hit on those concerns, arguing that the administration has not done enough to stem the tide of jobs flowing abroad. He has proposed changes to the tax code to discourage US companies from hiring foreign workers.

Kerry also pointed out that not a single manufacturing job has been created under Bush - an issue that could have a significant impact on the election, since many Midwestern swing states have been especially hard hit by the loss of industrial jobs.

Still, if the overall jobs picture continues to improve, Kerry runs the risk of seeming overly negative - or simply out of touch - by continuing to focus on pockets of bad news. And his criticism could be undercut by further progress: With manufacturing employment unchanged this month, and the previous month's decline now revised upward, economist Mayland sees improvement coming in that sector. "In next month's data, you will see job improvement in manufacturing," he predicts.

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