With job creation stalled, the stock market sliding and oil prices at record highs, a divided White House is under pressure to produce an economic policy response for President Bush's fall reelection campaign, Republican economic advisers said yesterday.
But disputes within the economic and political team may jeopardize the effort to craft a clear economic agenda, the advisers said. Plans to simplify the tax code, broaden the president's health insurance proposal and partially privatize Social Security are bumping against political concerns that any detailed proposal will present a target for Democratic attack while potentially looking like an election-year panic.
"It would not look good if they're throwing out ideas in political desperation," said Heritage Foundation economist Daniel J. Mitchell, echoing the more cautious sentiment dominating the White House debate. "They don't want to be like [President George H.W.] Bush in '92, where whenever he did do something, it looked like an election-year 'Let's throw out some stuff that nobody's going to take seriously.' "
Speaking at a picnic in Stratham, N.H., yesterday, the president remained positive as he pushed policy prescriptions that have languished for months, if not years: cutting business regulations, curbing lawsuits and allowing small businesses to band together to purchase employee health insurance.
"Today's employment report shows our economy is continuing to move forward," Bush told an audience at Bittersweet Farm. "And it reminds us that we're in a changing economy and we've got more to do. I'm not going to be satisfied until everybody who wants to work can find a job. I'm running because I understand how to take a strong economy and make it stronger."
But he hinted at proposals to come: "I'm running for four more years to continue to work for a pro-growth, pro-entrepreneur, pro-small-business economic agenda that is good for America."
Officials are still wrangling about what economic measures Bush should include in his speech to the Republican National Convention, which is less than four weeks away. Aides said the content of the speech is not set but said the goal is to make it more specific and substantive than the convention address of his Democratic challenger, John F. Kerry. Although no official would talk about it for the record because Bush has made no announcements, aides said a key second-term economic proposal will center on making health care more affordable for individuals and business -- with tax-advantaged savings plans for individuals and larger risk pools for companies.
Recent economic news has ratcheted up pressure on Bush to be bold. The economy generated 32,000 jobs in July, far short of economists' expectations. The Dow Jones industrial average slid 324 points this week to the lowest point of the year, closing Friday 772 points below its position when Bush took office.
Payroll jobs remain 1.5 million short of where last winter the White House said they would be by now. To avoid being the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net job loss, Bush must hope for 372,000 new jobs a month in August, September and October.
Yesterday's jobs report took administration and Bush campaign officials by surprise. Bush's aides had been expecting a number that several called "decent." Bush officials had been reveling in Kerry's failure to make notable gains in polls after last week's Democratic convention. The jobs number abruptly ended the celebration.
The architects of Bush's tax cuts conceded that their economic impact has not had the staying power they had hoped. N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said record oil prices, terrorism fears and a lingering lack of business confidence have worked against the administration's jobs forecast.
"I don't think [the tax cut] has run out of steam; I just think we've run into a lot of head wind," said Pamela Olson, who was assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy when last year's tax cut was formulated. "All those things are weighing down on [the recovery] moving forward in as robust a fashion as we had hoped."
To date, the president's campaign has focused largely on his economic achievements, but that message is increasingly discordant. The anemic new job figures come six days after Bush asserted during his weekly radio address, "Our economy is on a rising path."
Even then, the statement had a certain incongruity, coming a day after the Commerce Department reported that economic expansion in the second quarter had been weaker than expected. The same day, the White House had issued another forecast, showing the year's budget deficit of $445 billion, a record in dollar terms.
Democrats have begun to portray Bush's sunny rhetoric as a clumsy effort to whistle past the graveyard. A revised stump speech Bush unveiled last week included the mantra "We are turning the corner, and we're not turning back." Democrats pointed out that Hoover said on March 7, 1930, "Prosperity is just around the corner."
Kerry has hammered Bush on the phraseology ever since. "Saying we've turned the corner doesn't make it so," he said yesterday. "America will not turn the corner to better days until we have a new president who can see our problems and take action to fix them."
The Democratic National Committee yesterday launched a $6 million ad campaign lamenting that "millions of good jobs" have been "lost to plant closures and outsourcing" while "President Bush protects tax breaks favoring corporations that move their headquarters overseas."
Any policy proposal now would have virtually no impact on job creation before Election Day, said R. Glenn Hubbard, Bush's first Council of Economic Advisers chairman. But politically, Bush needs a strong policy response, said Kevin A. Hassett, a GOP economist at the American Enterprise Institute with close ties to the administration. "Having a positive policy agenda in the fall may be key to President Bush's reelection hopes," he said.
"When you run for president, you have to talk about the future," said Rep. Ray LaHood (Ill.), a senior Republican in Congress.
Policy suggestions such as extending health care to the uninsured or brokering a deal to curb asbestos litigation are coming from all corners of the GOP. But those suggestions are running up against cautious advisers who believe Bush should not court controversy, said Steve Moore, who heads the conservative political action committee Club for Growth.
"They're really divided between two camps, the 'Morning in America' crowd for running on the record of the last four years, against others who say, 'Let's not run on Morning in America because if we want to actually do something in the next four years, we need a mandate, we need to talk about policy.' "
The first camp has thus far held sway, Moore said, and "paradoxically, the worse Bush stands in the polls, the more risk-averse they will be."
Allen reported from New Hampshire. Staff writer Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.