Economic Salesmanship

The president's new economic team, White House officials have let it be known, is more about selling George Bush's policies than changing them.

When it comes to the economy, however, Americans are "show me" folks. What will convince them is not salesmanship, but results. In 2004, voters will be looking for higher returns on investments and more jobs. Marketing will be beside the point without tangible improvement.

Not that a convincing message is unimportant, as Wall Street's - and Congress's - unhappiness with former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill showed. The independent O'Neill often was at odds with the White House on issues as fundamental as tax cuts. He puzzled the finance world with his Africa tour with rock star Bono and unnerved markets with comments about wayward loans to foreign nations. For this he, along with chief economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, got the boot last week.

Economies are also sensitive to mood and message; otherwise economists wouldn't pay so much attention to consumer confidence, and the president himself would not have gotten so much flak early on in his term for "talking down" the economy.

Early indications are that Mr. Bush's choices for his new team - John Snow of the freight railroad giant CSX Corp. for Treasury secretary and Stephen Friedman, former cochair of the investment firm Goldman Sachs to replace Mr. Lindsey - will indeed be better salesmen. Mr. Snow has considerable experience in Washington and is said to be more of a consensus builder than shoot-from-the-hip O'Neill. The question is, will their product - more tax cuts to be unveiled in January - fix the problem?

It's not an easy one to fix. The US is in a "jobless recovery." Economic growth may have reached 4 percent in the third quarter, but unemployment just clocked in at 6 percent, an eight-year high. Productivity gains help explain the phenomenon, but growth without jobs will not impress show-me voters.

At the same time, the economy still is suffering from three things that have little to do with government: the burst of the high-tech bubble, the fallout from Sept. 11, and the accounting scandals. Looming on the horizon are unknowables, like a war with Iraq and the ongoing war on terrorism.

Meanwhile, the man who in many respects has more power over the economy than the president - Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan - has little maneuvering room left. How much lower can he go with the federal funds rate at 1.25 percent?

The Bush administration is right to change its economic team. But now, the focus will move to substance. If tax cuts, what kind and how much? What about the ballooning deficit? What about the still unpassed federal budget? For this, more than salesmanship is required.

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