- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 16, 2004

One perplexing curiosity about this election year is why President Bush isn’t getting much more credit for the economic recovery.

Despite strong economic growth figures and a falling jobless rate, a majority of voters doubt the economy has improved much. A Gallup Poll of 1,000 Americans earlier this month found that 51 percent think “the economy is getting worse.” Just 43 percent said it was getting better.

An American Research Group poll of 1,100 people (including 770 registered voters) showed that 47 percent believe the United States is still in a recession. When asked to “rate the national economy these days,” 58 percent said it was bad, very bad or terrible, while only 40 percent said it was good to very good.

Republican economic advisers I have spoken with lately say that Mr. Bush can do a much better job of promoting the economy in his speeches and his campaign ads. Some say he should take a page out of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign playbook, when he won a landslide re-election victory despite a 7.1 percent unemployment rate (far higher than today’s 5.6 percent level).

Mr. Reagan did it with a series of brilliantly conceived “Morning in America” campaign ads that said the economy had emerged from the depths of its long 1981-82 recession and had regained its health and vigor. The ads were resolutely optimistic, dramatically capturing Mr. Reagan’s unshakeable belief in a can-do, entrepreneurial, free-enterprise America.

The Reagan White House knew they couldn’t count on the news media to accurately report what was happening in the economy, so it went directly to the people via paid TV ads.

“Reagan’s optimistic ‘Morning in America’ message could work today, but it takes a special kind of communicator to get that message across,” Chicago-based economist Brian Wesbury told me.

Making matters harder for Mr. Bush, says Mr. Wesbury, is the absence of any enthusiastic, party-wide promotion of the supply-side tax cut policies that have helped to lead the country out of its economic lethargy.

“Supply-side economics is not just a dirty word to Democrats, it has also become a dirty word for some Republicans, too,” he said.

Rankling other GOP economic advisers is the administration’s subdued tone on an economy that is in full throttle. Too many administration officials talk about the economy “in language that is defensive and apologetic,” says supply-side economist Alan Reynolds. “There is nothing to be apologetic about.

“Like his father, the president falls into the trap of talking about the economy only in terms of jobs,” Mr. Reynolds said. “He should be talking about growth, higher incomes in real terms, higher disposable incomes.”

Part of the problem with Mr. Bush’s message on the economy is his speeches. He has been eloquent and often moving on the war against terrorism, but all too often his rhetoric falls short when he is talking about the economy. It’s in need of a strong dose of inspiration.

Mr. Reagan talked about the American economy in heroic terms, lionizing the capitalists, entrepreneurs, risk-takers, shopkeepers, merchants and ordinary workers who made the United States the strongest economy on the globe.

When Democrats tried to deride the hundreds of thousands of jobs that were being created each month under Mr. Reagan’s tax cuts as “hamburger flippers,” as Democrats are doing now, Mr. Reagan went on the air and shot back with unerring accuracy:

“Americans have been taught to know when opportunity knocks, but the Democrats seem determined to knock opportunity.” It wasn’t long before the Democrats stopped ridiculing “Reaganomics.”

John Kerry seems to think the election is going to be decided on Iraq. But despite the turmoil there and the prisoner-abuse flap, Americans by a lopsided 54 percent to 36 percent say the economy is more important than Iraq in deciding how they will vote, according to a Quinnipiac Poll of 2,016 registered voters.

Meanwhile, the Bush campaign is hoping that as businesses continue to create scores of jobs each month, public confidence — the president’s numbers on his handling of the economy — will climb. Maybe.

But Mr. Bush’s campaign strategists shouldn’t trust the national news media to accurately report the jobs figures. “Let’s face it, the press doesn’t tell the truth during an election,” Mr. Reynolds says. “What people are hearing are stories that play up the bad news and ignore the good news.”

Now is the time to start preparing optimistic “Morning in America” ads to counter the negativists in the media. There’s an inspiring story waiting to be told about Mr. Bush’s tax-cutting economic recovery, and Americans are ready to listen.

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

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