Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The No. 1 rule in presidential election politics: Define the issues or your opponent or the national news media will define them for you.

President Bush and his campaign strategists have done an excellent job of defining John Kerry’s systemic weaknesses on national security and the tax-and-spend issues.

But Mr. Bush and his team have not done as good a job defining the U.S. economy, whose multiple strengths have not been promoted as much as they could have (and should have) over the past year. When I read news stories coming out of Wall Street or from the nightly news that speak of “a struggling economy,” which has been growing by between 3 percent and 4 percent, it is clear Mr. Bush’s story isn’t being told.

The president held his own in the third debate, but his answer on the question about people losing their jobs was weak. This is an economy fully in recovery, and the president missed an opportunity to recite a litany of statistics that would have effectively rebutted Mr. Kerry’s gloom-and-doom attacks that deeply distort this country’s economic health.

This economy added a net 1.8 million jobs in the last 12 months. Its low 5.4 percent unemployment rate is significantly lower than the 5.8 percent average of the 1990s. The annualized quarterly economic growth rates of the past year are much stronger than the 3.3 percent average growth rates of the 1970s, ‘80s or ‘90s.

At one point in the last debate, Mr. Kerry said U.S. exports have been down when, in fact, we sold more than $1 trillion in goods and services to the world last year, an all-time record.

On the day of that debate, the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the monthly payroll survey showed a weaker-than-expected 96,000 jobs created in September, much lower than the 150,000 business economists forecast.

Certainly the damaging hurricanes that halted economic activity in much of the Southeast and elsewhere didn’t help, but 1.8 million new jobs in the last 13 months suggests we are headed in the right direction.

The bigger jobs number that received no attention that day was the Labor Department’s revised preliminary estimate of jobs created in the 12 months that ended in March. The estimate, to be made final in February, showed jobs created in this period had been undercounted to the tune of 236,000. Add that to Mr. Bush’s total.

As for overall employment, it’s not true, as Mr. Kerry states, that Mr. Bush has presided over an economy with a net loss of jobs over the past four years. The Labor Department’s household survey, providing a more accurate gauge of how many people are working, shows total employment has grown by 3 million. The payroll report does not pick up most of these people because many are self-employed and work as independent contractors — a major and continuing trend in our ever-restructuring economy.

Elsewhere the economic picture has been solid. A strong 1.4 percent increase last month in retail sales is certainly a sign consumers have money and are willing to spend. The railroad and truck sectors report substantially higher manufacturing shipments and complain it’s straining their capacity. As for oil prices, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries reports this week that global crude oil production last month was at a 25-year high, which will drive oil prices down in the weeks and months to come, reducing gasoline prices as well.

This is hardly a picture of a struggling economy, but it is a story not being told as aggressively as it should be. Why?

The candidate who wrote the campaign textbook on this score was Ronald Reagan, who, during the 1984 elections, decided he could not depend on the national news media to present an accurate picture of how the economy was recovering under his tax-cut policies. His opponent, Walter Mondale, talked about the economy as if it were in a recession. The TV news shows were showing factories closing. Unemployment that year was still nearly 7 percent.

Then the Reagan campaign ran its up-beat “morning in America” ad that showed the economy back on track, people going to work, and the country moving in the right direction and hopeful again.

That’s the ad Mr. Bush should show the country in the remaining days of this election. The economy is still on the mend in many areas, and the jobs sector is a work in progress. No one says everything is perfect.

But our economic growth, our rising national employment, our export sales and our record homeownership are the envy of the world’s major industrial powers. Mr. Bush has a lot of cash in his campaign account. He needs to spend a big chunk of it to remind the American people we are on the right track, that we need to “stay the course,” that this remains the land of opportunity that delivers on the American dream.

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

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