- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2004

America’s long-brewing recovery finally seems to be boosting President Bush’s economic job approval numbers, and eroding Sen. John Kerry’s No. 1 domestic issue.

No matter how often the Massachusetts liberal flogs the number of jobs that have been lost over the past three years, he can’t overcome the fact economic growth rates are climbing and unemployment is steadily sinking.

It has taken awhile for this trend to soak into the electorate’s consciousness, partly due to the national news media’s unbalanced, Depression-era reporting on the economy. But there can be no doubt now that Americans are beginning to feel more confident about their future economic security — especially on the jobs front.

Among the latest signs of a turnaround in public opinion: In a recent Associated Press poll, only 18 percent of those surveyed mentioned the economy as their chief worry, down from 31 percent a year ago.

The National Annenberg Election Survey reports the “percentage of people saying the Bush administration’s policies made the economy worse fell from 41 percent in late March to 36 percent in April. The share saying the policies had made the economy better rose from 26 percent to 30 percent.”

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday also reported a similar turnaround on the economy among registered voters: 26 percent now say the economy and jobs will be the single most important issue in shaping their vote, down sharply from 36 percent who said this last month.

This great news for Mr. Bush is, in my opinion, for good reasons. Housing construction, homeownership rates, manufacturing orders, tax-cut-spurred consumer spending and retail sales are all up. All this has encouraged top business economists to raise their growth forecasts from 4 percent to 5 percent for the first three months of this year and to predict that new job growth (308,000 in March) will continue throughout 2004 and very likely beyond.

In another sign of the economy’s staying power, the Conference Board reported Monday its Composite Index of Leading Economic Indicators — which forecasts economic trends over the next three to six months — rose 0.3 percent. Among its findings: increased manufacturing orders for consumer goods and a sharp rise in home building permits.

All this points to a big increase in jobs between now and November, something that is bad news for the bond market (which fears renewed inflation) and John Kerry’s presidential hopes.

“Usually in a recovery, you jump to the higher levels of job creation and stay there, and that is what’s going to happen,” said Kevin Hassett, a top economist at the American Enterprise Institute who predicted March’s huge spurt in new jobs.

“The jobs numbers are right on track,” veteran supply-side economist Arthur Laffer told me. “By election time, the economy should be doing a lot better. I’m not worried about Bush’s re-election.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Kerry’s chief campaign strategists nurtured visions of recapturing the White House on a wave of economic discontent. Polls showed likely voters giving Mr. Bush failing grades on his handling of the economy. Indeed, most of the latest polls still showed the president’s score falling into the mid- to high 40s on the economy.

But these same polls also show the number of people listing the economy as their chief concern has been falling, replaced by the war on terrorism and Iraq — national security issues where Mr. Kerry and his party are weakest.

But it isn’t just economists who think the economy is now on a roll that shows no sign of slowing down. Democratic Party officials acknowledge this, too.

“Missouri’s economy has actually improved,” state Democratic chairman Joe Carmichael told me. “The number of jobs created last month was a good number, the greatest number for any month in the past 20 years. Things seem to be turning around.”

Barring any serious retreat or defeat for the administration in Iraq, the economy’s robust renewal robs Mr. Kerry and his party of their best issue.

If next month’s Labor Department employment report is anything like March’s blowout jobs numbers, look for a 10-point lead in Mr. Bush’s election polls and forecasts of larger gains for the GOP in the House and Senate.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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