- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

President Bush yesterday tried to reverse public disapproval of his handling of the economy by taking credit for a robust economic expansion, notwithstanding high gasoline prices.

“The economy of the United States is strong,” Mr. Bush told reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, after meeting yesterday with his principal advisers on domestic policy.

“My policies allow more Americans to keep more of what they earn, to have more control over their daily lives — from health care to education to their retirement,” he added. “I’m pleased to report that the strategy is working.”

Yet 56 percent of Americans disapprove of Mr. Bush’s handling of the economy, according to a poll conducted last week by Ipsos Public Affairs for the Associated Press. A CBS poll this week showed the disapproval level at 52 percent.

Al Hubbard, director of the White House National Economic Council, yesterday attributed the negative poll numbers to several factors, chief among them the high price of fuel.

“There’s unease about the economy in general, and I think that has to do with a couple of things,” he told reporters after the meeting with Mr. Bush. “No. 1 is, obviously, high gasoline prices. None of us are comfortable paying $2.50 per gallon when we go to fill our cars with gas.”

Another cause for concern is the high price of health care and health insurance, said Ben Bernanke, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

“It’s certainly a major drag on the economy, on family budgets,” he said. “Out-of-pocket costs have also gone up quite a bit. Average family spends, I think, like $600 out of pocket over and above insurance costs now. So these are issues that we are going to have to address, because they are significant.”

Democrats yesterday shrugged off positive economic news and criticized Mr. Bush’s plans to make many of his tax cuts permanent.

“Low- and middle-income families across America have not felt this financially squeezed and anxious about their jobs in many, many years,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.

“If the Bush White House and Republican leaders in Congress really want a strong economy, they would shelve their September plan to lavish yet another tax break on the wealthy few,” he added. “They would focus instead on increasing the minimum wage and lowering the cost of health care and education for everyone.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said the president’s meeting with his economic team was a meaningless gesture.

“A combination of rising interest rates, rising debt and fewer good-paying jobs are making it harder for America’s families to make ends meet,” he said. “The president should use his Texas vacation to spend time overhauling his economic policies, not staging photo ops.”

But Mr. Bush insisted that most economic indicators are positive.

“Job growth is strong,” he said. “This country has added nearly 4 million new jobs since May of 2003.

“The unemployment rate is 5 percent, which is below the average of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s,” he added. “Americans have more money in their pocket, and that’s good news.”

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