- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

The economy's unusually strong election-year recovery in the first three months of 2002 has given Republicans a well-timed political boost that threatens to dampen Democratic hopes of making congressional gains in November.
Typically, the state of the economy is the pivotal issue in elections, and most political analysts believe that will be the case in this year's House and Senate races. Polls show that the economy and jobs is the No. 1 concern on voters' minds after last year's economic slump. Friday's Commerce Department report that the economy grew 5.8 percent in the first quarter was welcome news to President Bush and his advisers, who see the robust growth number as early vindication that their tax-cut policies are working.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush said in his weekly radio address yesterday that one of the "best ways" to ensure that the short-term economic recovery expands over the long-term is to boost trade, and he urged the Senate to move quickly to grant him broad discretionary powers.
The president used the positive economic news to support his campaign to secure the trade-promotion authority from the Senate, which allowed it to lapse in 1994, under the Clinton administration.
"We cannot be content or complacent," Mr. Bush said of the data. "The benefits of greater trade are beyond dispute."
With trade promotion, the president said, comes "the flexibility to negotiate with other countries to open their markets and get the best deals for American producers and workers."
Administration economists remain confident but cautious about the first quarter's growth rate, saying the second quarter's growth numbers will offer a more complete measurement of the recovery's sustainability.
"The first-quarter numbers were very good. Most of it was in replenishing business inventory, and we're going to have a pretty good second quarter because the numbers showed we are still drawing down inventories, and that's going to turn around," predicted White House economist Lawrence Lindsey.
Mr. Lindsey had said he expected the economy to grow by 3 percent for the year, but he said he revised his forecast after seeing Friday's numbers. "I think we might be a little bit higher than that now," he said.
"Good economic numbers certainly could help the president's party, but these numbers have to be sustained over a period of time before people internalize it. There is still a reticence out there that says, 'I'm nervous,'" said pollster John Zogby.
"The problem is that right now I'm not sure it is felt out in the country. I just did a poll that showed 23 percent are saying the economy and jobs are the No. 1 issue. That is tied with the war against terrorism," Mr. Zogby said.
Notably, Mr. Zogby said his poll showed that Republicans led Democrats on "the party best able to deal with the economy," 44 percent to 39 percent. He said the Republican Party also led on taxes, homeland security and foreign policy.
But Democrats held a slight edge in the generic vote on political preferences in the congressional elections and led Republicans on education, health care and Social Security.
Republican strategists also expressed confidence that the economy was in a strong recovery but stressed caution. "I think we need to be conservatively optimistic while the data begins to swing in the right direction. It takes time for people to feel more confident in the economy," said Terry Holt, chief spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas.
"I think people's perceptions will be defined more by our second-quarter growth number, which will come out in July. But our prospects look good. The Bush tax cuts have saved the economy," Mr. Holt said.
In political terms, the strong gross domestic product figure was not good news to the Democrats who have been persistently attacking Mr. Bush's economic policies, charging that his tax cuts and ensuing deficits would "worsen the economy," as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota predicted in a major speech on the economy in February.
The Democratic National Committee did not put out a statement on Friday's growth number, and the DNC's chief spokeswoman, Maria Cardona, sought to shift the focus to issues where Democrats feel they are on stronger ground.
"Unemployment is still quite high at 5.7 percent, and jobs are still a concern. And the fact of the matter is that on individual-pocketbook issues, voters are incredibly anxious. Issues like prescription drugs, education, health care these are issues where polls show Democrats continue to have an advantage by 7 points or more," she said.
"Now, with these good economic numbers and Bush at stratospheric approval ratings, you would think that the Republicans should be doing better, and they are not. And it's because voters trust Democrats on the issues they care about the most," she said.
"It's always better for the party in power to have a good economy than a bad economy. But at the end of the day I do not think that this is going to be a decisive factor in the elections," Democratic Party pollster Mark Mellman said.

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