Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), dismissing economic and jobs growth as too little, too late, will step up his campaign accusing President Bush of saddling the middle class with lower wages and higher costs for health care, education and gasoline, top advisers said yesterday.
With polls showing voters unhappy with Bush's economic stewardship, Kerry will spend the remainder of June arguing that the president's policies have left most voters -- and the country -- in worse financial shape.
The Democratic nominee will paint a gloomy picture: the worst jobs performance since the Great Depression, an explosion of personal bankruptcies, skyrocketing bills for child care, health insurance and education, all piled on top of workers who are earning less or working more.
At a briefing for reporters, Gene Sperling, a Kerry economic adviser, talked of a "dark fiscal period" and job loss not seen since the dreary 1930s. "The fiscal future has taken a dramatic turn for the worst," said Sperling, referring to record budget surpluses turning into record deficits under Bush. Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, called Bush the "rudderless incumbent" on economic matters.
But a recent spate of positive economic news threatens to complicate, if not contradict, Kerry's impending attack. The economy is growing at its fastest clip in 20 years, 1.4 million jobs have been created in the past nine months, including nearly 250,000 in May alone, and wages are starting to climb for many workers.
"The economy is firing on all cylinders," said Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman. He pointed to rising consumer confidence, the return of manufacturing jobs and record-high home ownership as evidence of a booming economy. Kerry is offering "a message filled with doom and gloom and pessimism that is completely disconnected from reality," he said. Schmidt blamed Kerry for talking voters into thinking the economy is worse than it is. "There is no question that John Kerry's commitment to pessimism has a negative effect on how some voters view the economy," he said.
Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns are using selective data to paint very different portraits of a U.S. economy that is humming for some, but hurting others. Americans with higher incomes, real estate in hot markets, stocks and reliable jobs are feeling much less of a pinch than most Americans. But there is no disputing costs such as health care are rising by double digits for most workers, and that many Americans are returning to the workforce with lower wages or fewer hours or benefits, or not returning at all.
Official statistics will paint widely differing portraits of the economy, depending on how they are sliced. For instance, employers have added 1.4 million jobs to their payrolls since they bottomed out in August, 947,000 just in the last three months. But total payrolls are still nearly 1.2 million lower than when Bush took office. If government jobs are discounted, private sector payrolls remain 1.9 million below their January 2001 level.
The Bush campaign also has been touting a recovery in the politically sensitive manufacturing sector, trumpeting 91,000 new manufacturing jobs since January. The Kerry campaign prefers a longer time horizon: There are still 2.7 million fewer manufacturing jobs than there were at Bush's inauguration.
The two worlds of wage growth seem even more disconnected. Yesterday, the Bush campaign said wages are rising across economic sectors, and recent job growth has been led by sectors of the economy with typically high wages, such as financial services, information technology and utility work.
Yet the liberal Economic Policy Institute has drawn the opposite conclusion: In every state but Nebraska and Nevada, jobs in higher-paying industries have given way to jobs in low-wage industries since the recession ended in November 2001. The EPI study may be especially worrisome to Bush, considering where the rise of low-wage jobs are concentrated. New Hampshire, Colorado and West Virginia, three battleground states, have seen job growth in industries that pay one-third less than the industries that have lost jobs.
How can both sides be right? Again, it depends on how far back the numbers go. The Bush campaign cited wage data from May, when hourly wages rose a nickel, a faster gain than the average monthly wage increases during the boom years of 1999 and 2000. The Kerry campaign prefers to look back to the recession. Since then, wages have grown 3 cents a month, even as corporate profits have shot up 62 percent.
"In the last few months, the labor market looks stronger, and it mostly looks stronger because we're finally adding new jobs," said labor economist Gary Burtless. "If you take a longer look, over the past four years, things look pretty bad."
Another issue pinching workers is the surging cost of health care and the rising burden of pensions for an aging workforce. From December to March, employee compensation began picking up steam, the Commerce Department reported this spring, but more than two-thirds of those gains never made it to worker paychecks. Benefit costs jumped 2.4 percent. Wages and salaries ticked up 0.6 percent.
Such statistical duels leave it to the voters to decide how the economy is doing, and so far, they are siding with Kerry's gloomy view. An ABC News-Money magazine poll last week found that 67 percent of those questioned said the economy is "not good" or poor, and an Associated Press survey found that while there was a slight uptick in Bush's approval rating on the economy, 57 percent said the nation has lost jobs in the last six months.