- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

Growing consumer confidence and a stronger job market are spurring calls from Republican strategists for the White House to begin aggressively promoting the economy’s performance to boost their party in the upcoming elections.

Former White House advisers predict that Joshua B. Bolten, President Bush’s new chief of staff, will step up a strategy to sell the economy’s progress to voters, a majority of whom still perceive it as weak.

“It’s crucial that Republicans focus on the economy and begin telling the story about how strong it is, and I think we’ll see that reflected in a possible new focus by the White House on the economy” when Mr. Bolten takes over, said Cesar Conda, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former domestic-policy adviser.

While former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. brought administrative skills to the job, Mr. Bolten “brings entirely different skills — policy development and policy implementation, particularly economic and budget policy. I think he will bring that perspective to the job of chief of staff,” Mr. Conda said.

Complaints by Republican strategists about the White House’s not promoting and taking credit for the economy’s growth over the past four years have been commonplace for some time.

As part of the effort, the Republican National Committee added a new feature to its Web site that catalogues the latest advances in the economy, and last week they had a lot of good news to report.

The Conference Board’s March Consumer Confidence Index rose to 107.2, its highest level in four years. The survey also had 28.4 percent of consumers saying jobs were “plentiful.” On Wall Street, the Dow was a little more than 11,100, boosting worker 401(k) retirement savings, while the Nasdaq has reached its highest level in more than five years.

Job growth has driven unemployment down in 39 states in the past year, and employment rose in 48 states in the year preceding February 2006. Jobless claims have been declining, dropping by 10,000 in the week ending March 25. The economy grew by 3.5 percent last year, and economists say that it grew by more than 4 percent in the first three months of this year.

These bullish statistics, however, have not changed Mr. Bush’s job-approval rating on the economy very much. His scores — 40 percent and lower in recent weeks — have “remained stable across the last several months,” according to a Gallup poll last week. Gallup reported that only one-third of Americans rated the economy as excellent or good.

But administration officials took some comfort last week when another Gallup poll asked Americans what they personally worried about “a great deal,” and only 31 percent said unemployment — a sign that earlier perceptions about the economy may be changing slowly.

Still, former White House officials say there is “a disconnect” between what Americans think about the economy’s health and its actual performance, and that the administration needs to correct that perception as the election year begins to heat up.

“I think Josh will definitely push hard to make sure the American people know how good the economy is. It’s important to be aggressive on that,” said Trent Duffy, a former White House deputy press secretary.

“You’ve got a really hot economy, job creation is up, but people may not feel it until August or September,” he said.

What troubles Republicans most is that, despite the economy’s improvement under Mr. Bush, 53 percent of Americans think the Democrats would do a better job of dealing with the economy and 38 percent said the Republicans would do a better job.

“That’s really baffling in light of the economy’s growth,” Mr. Conda said.

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