Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The United States is experiencing strong business growth, jobs are being created and unemployment is down, but voters still give President Bush low marks on the economy — an issue that is likely to influence whether he is re-elected in November.

Some economic analysts suggest Mr. Bush needs to do a better job of promoting the economy’s expansion in his speeches and campaign ads by taking a page out of Ronald Reagan’s campaign playbook in 1984, when he won re-election in a 49-state landslide, despite a 7 percent unemployment rate — far higher than today’s 5.6 percent level.

“I think Reagan’s optimistic, ‘morning in America’ message could work today, but it takes a special kind of communicator to get that message across,” said Chicago-based economist Brian Wesbury. “Supply-side economics is not just a dirty word to Democrats, it has also become a dirty word for some Republicans, too.”

Too many administration officials talk about the economy “in language that is defensive and apologetic,” said economist Alan Reynolds of the libertarian Cato Institute. “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. He should be talking about growth, higher incomes in real terms, higher disposable incomes,” Mr. Reynolds said.

Despite guerrilla attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and the prisoner-abuse scandal that has put the White House on the defensive, Americans by 54 percent to 36 percent say the economy is more important than Iraq in deciding how they will vote, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll of 2,016 registered voters.

More than 1.1 million payroll jobs have been created in the last eight months — nearly 900,000 since January — yet recent polls find that a majority of voters are still not convinced that the economy is getting better.

A Gallup Poll of 1,000 adults conducted earlier this month showed that 51 percent think “the economy is getting worse,” while 43 percent say it is getting better.

An American Research Group poll of 1,100 persons that included 770 registered voters, found that 47 percent believe the U.S. is still in a recession. When asked to “rate the national economy these days,” 58 percent said it was bad, very bad or terrible, and 40 percent said it was good to very good.

Polling analysts who study voter attitudes cautioned yesterday that such polls are not entirely accurate because they are influenced by the way the question is phrased and how people personally perceive their own job security.

“You shouldn’t read the responses in a literal sense. If people think the economy is below their expectations, they will say it is getting worse even if it is marginally improving,” said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

“When government officials start focusing on economic indicators, it does not mean that the average person is experiencing those changes,” Mr. Kull said. “It takes a long time for people to gain a sense of job security.”

A declining stock market and a biased national news media that tends to emphasize negative news were other factors contributing to the nation’s negative view of the economy, analysts said.

“Let’s face it, the press doesn’t tell the truth during an election. What people are hearing are stories that play up the bad news and ignore the good news,” Mr. Reynolds said.

“The fact is that more and more people own stock and they pay attention to the stock market. They still remember when in January 2000 the Dow was over 11,000 and we still haven’t gotten back to that point,” Mr. Kull said. “That’s the kind of information that tends to elicit negative responses about the economy.”

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