AS hundreds of economists and business and labor leaders gather here for the economic summit, they are charged with reaching what their host, President-elect Clinton, hopes will be a broad consensus on how to grapple with America's economic problems.
The 300-plus participants, whose views will be heard in carefully orchestrated sessions over the next two days, range from chief executives of computer companies to managers of health-care concerns. Their agendas are complex and promise to conflict.
For the meetings today and tomorrow, Mr. Clinton has stated a seemingly simple objective: "What we hope to do is to get the best advice we can about the condition of the economy and what we can do about it. I want it to be a positive, upbeat conference that is nonetheless soberly realistic about the challenges before us."
Clinton chose his economic team and made certain Cabinet decisions in time to help shape this week's debate. (Symbolism of those choices, Page 3.)
Among the messages that his appointments carry are:
Fiscal restraint. Both Office of Management and Budget Director-designate Leon Panetta and Deputy Director-designate Alice Rivlin are strong proponents of controlling federal outlays with disciplined budgets. Mr. Panetta has called for across-the-board cuts in government programs, including the thus-far politically untouchable entitlements. He supports tax hikes.
Targeted government spending and private-sector incentives. The cornerstone of Clinton's immediate recovery plan is more federal money for projects that create physical assets such as roads, tunnels, bridges, and high-speed rail as well as jobs. He intends to couple this with tax breaks and other measures to encourage business development.
Treasury Secretary-designate Lloyd Bentsen has been a champion of corporate America, from oil companies to real estate firms. His deputy director-designate, Roger Altman, emerges from the dealmaking environment of investment banking, after earlier service in the Treasury Department.
By tapping Robert Rubin, who co-chaired one of Wall Street's leading investment banks, to head the newly formed National Economic Council, Clinton is trying to assure the private sector of his pro-growth stance. Clinton's White House chief of staff, Thomas McLarty, another big-business man who has run a publicly held energy concern, will be a top policymaker.
Increasing US industrial productivity and access to foreign markets. Robert Reich, Clinton's choice for labor secretary, is one of the country's leading experts on the importance of "human capital," that is, a better- educated, highly trained work force capable of competing. By choosing Laura D'Andrea Tyson, a University of California at Berkeley professor, to be the chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers, Clinton seems to have taken the first step in helping troubled US industries. She calls for t he federal government to nurture critical US industries, such as aerospace, high-speed transport, and advanced communications, including fiber optics.
Clinton's surprise choice for commerce secretary, Democratic Party chairman Ron Brown, is expected to use his political acumen to work with other agencies in promoting US business.
Overhauling the health care and welfare system. When Clinton named University of Wisconsin Chancellor Donna Shalala as his designated secretary for health and human services, he said she will spearhead the redesign of government health and welfare spending - which accounts for 40 percent of the federal budget - while paring down costs and providing more equitable coverage.
As Clinton prepares for the presidency, the US economy appears to be strengthening. Retailers are posting solid increases. According to Commerce Department figures, retail sales rose 0.4 percent in November, almost double what economists forecast.
Consumer purchases were far more robust in October than Commerce officials originally predicted. Their 0.9 percent increase for November was revised up to 1.9 percent.
Consumer confidence has reached its highest level in almost three years, according to the University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment. This comes on the heels of a November drop in the number of Americans who are unemployed.
But Clinton has largely pushed this news aside, although it remains unclear just how far. He is still eager to provide a short-term government stimulus package. "We are nowhere near to knowing that this ... recession ... is over," he said during a visit to Washington last week. Back in Arkansas, he said: "I think we would all agree that to a greater or lesser extent, we think the evidence of whether we're coming out of [the recession] is mixed and uncertain."