Bad economic news may not be that bad for Carter

herbert Hoover would have rubbed his eyes. Here that nation ends an election with high inflation, high unemployment and high interest rates, and with the second biggest budget deficit in history, and yet the economy has not become the doninant campaign issue that overwhelmed President Hoover in 1932 and gave Rosevelt the New Deal landslide. The issue is there but it isn't paramount. Why?

The economic news still is coming in, and ther results are mixed.

The government announced that the budget deficit for the 1980 fiscal year (ending Sept. 30) was $59 billion, surpassed only under President Ford ($66.4 billion in FY 1976). Last January, President Carter estimated a deficit of $29 billion. The administration withheld the embarrassing figure till after the Cleveland debate.

Over administration protest, several of the country's major banks raised their prime lending rate to 14 1/2 percent, meaning that homeowners and the housing industry, among others, will continue having borrowing difficulties.

On the other hand, the US Commerce Department's index of leading economic indicators rose 2.4 percent in September, the third increase in as many months. The US gross national product, which measures the value of the nation's goods and services, rose by 1 percent in the third quarter, a small increase, but markedly better than the record 9.6 percent drop in the second quarter.

The biggest contributor to the increase was a substantial improvement in the worker layoff rate, the report said.

The department also said its Index of Coincident Indicators -- supposed to move in tandem with the economy -- registered a 0.2 percent increase in September, following a 0.1 percent decline in August. And the department's Index of Lagging Indicators, which tends to trail economic movements and confirm earlier reports, rose 3.3 percent in September -- the first increase since April.

Ronald Reagan in the Cleveland debate recalled that inflation under Mr. Carter rose from 4.8 percent to 12.7 percent, and there are 8 million unemployed.

"Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Reagan asked in his closing statement, and declared, "We do not have to go on sharing in scarcity."

Carter naturally emphasized signs of recovery in answers on the economy put to both candidates. He spoke of the recession in the past tense. "Earlier this year we did have very severe inflation pressure," he said, but now "the inflation rate is 7 percent." He took a reassuring view of unemployment, too, saying that the government is creating new jobs. In short, he said, the recession "was the briefest we've had since World War II."

Political and economic questions remain unanswered. A year ago it seemed impossible that the Carter administration could survive the recession and that it would be a central campaign issue. Some pundits drew parallels between Hoover's political demise at the hands of economic issues and what they expected to be Carter's similar downfall. But reappraisals are being made.

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