The delicate art of economic cheerleading

Bush forum Tuesday seeks to reassure the public that he understands economy's woes.

It's a dilemma all modern presidents have faced: There is little they can do to fine-tune the nation's economy, yet voters nevertheless hold them accountable for business cycle ups and downs.

As a result, at some point almost every White House looks for ways to appear concerned about public economic angst that aren't necessarily connected to any impending change in government fiscal policy.

Gerald Ford passed out buttons that said "WIN – Whip Inflation Now." Jimmy Carter wore cardigans and urged cutting national energy costs via turned-down thermometers. As president–elect, Bill Clinton went so far as to host a summit on the economy before his actual inauguration.

This week's short White House economic conference in Waco, Texas, is of a piece with these previous efforts, say experts. It's a way to cheerlead and appear thoughtful, to a point.

Will it jump-start the economy? That's unlikely. Does it contain an element of political posturing? Of course.

But that doesn't necessarily make it a waste of time.

Such efforts "do focus attention on things in a way that may not be readily apparent," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow in government studies at the Brookings Institution.

President Bush's forum on Tuesday was slated to involve some 250 people, ranging from Bush himself and Vice President Dick Cheney to a United Parcel Service driver and the heads of a number of small businesses.

Sharp criticism from Democrats that the preliminary guest list was skewed toward GOP contributors appears to have had at least some effect. The White House has gone out of its way to emphasize the Democratic credentials of some invitees, as well as dragging in such last-minute participants as Fannie Mae chief executive Franklin Raines, a budget director in the Clinton White House, and Internet executive Jerry Yang, a prominent Al Gore supporter in the 2000 election.

The panels are expected to cover economic recovery and job creation, corporate responsibility, small investors and retirement security, technology and innovation, and healthcare security.

"There will be at least 14 hours of detailed, unscripted policy discussions," said deputy White House communications director Jim Wilkinson over the weekend. "The president knows the best solutions come from outside Washington. He wants to hear from these Americans who are on the front lines."

He also likely wants to convey the image of a thoughtful president concerned with the stock market's whiplash, as opposed to a vacationing president more concerned with clearing brush on his Texas ranch than with the disappearing retirement savings of many Americans.

Bush and his political handlers have some reason to be worried on this account. Polls generally show that the public is far less impressed with Bush's economic stewardship than with his leadership of the war on terrorism.

Bush's approval rating on the economy was 45 percent, as opposed to 66 percent overall, in a CBS News Poll last week.

But don't look for the president to emerge from a meeting room waving a sheaf of new policy proposals he wants implemented right away. The irony is that these meetings are taking place at a time when there is little the government can do for the flagging economy.

The one big fiscal lever an administration has – pumping government spending into the economy – has largely been pulled already, due to the combination of big Bush tax cuts and increased government spending for the war on terrorism and other concerns.

As recently as last year the US was running a $127 billion government surplus. This fiscal year, a deficit of $150 million is projected.

That may be bad for the nation's fiscal discipline, but in the view of many economists the red ink should at least provide a boost to the nation's businesses.

Of course, some economists think more tax cuts should be on the Waco agenda – whether they are politically achievable or not.

Economic confidence might go up "if Bush were to start talking about a positive growth agenda," says Stephen Moore, chairman of the Club for Growth, a pro-tax-cut political action committee.

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