WASHINGTON -- Anticipating more grim economic news this week, the Bush administration has launched a top-level campaign to distance itself from the failings and attach itself to the successes of an anemic recovery struggling for air.
The efforts appear aimed at blunting the political damage almost certain to result from spring growth estimates the government will issue Thursday.
Private and government economists expect the figures to show that economic growth stumbled in the spring after a moderate first-quarter surge, dampening -- if not --ing -- the president's hopes of persuading voters that hard times are at last giving way to prosperity.
As that message becomes increasingly difficult to sell, the administration is scrambling to pursue a different tack.
In one forum after another, Cabinet officials and Bush appointees including Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, budget director Richard Darman and White House economist Michael Boskin are portraying the president as a bold yet prudent helmsman, skillfully navigating a troubled economy through darkly imperiled seas.
"I think the president's done a good job in a very, very difficult economic environment," Mr. Boskin told reporters last week.
Still, with the Republican National Convention in Houston just three weeks away, and elections little more than three months off, the president's long-promised economic recovery is listing through the horse latitudes with little chance of fresh wind between now and November.
Unemployment is hung at an eight-year high of 7.8 percent, with 10 million Americans out of work. Sluggish consumer spending reflects tepid wage growth and a national mood of caution, and industrial activity actually slipped three tenths of a percent in June.
Private economists believe the economy grew by an annual rate of less than 2 percent between April and June, after first quarter growth of 2.7 percent.
Whatever second-quarter figure is announced Thursday will dog Mr. Bush for the rest of his campaign. Even if the economy picks up steam over the summer -- there are no signs yet that it has -- third quarter statistics won't come out until the week before the election. That probably would not be soon enough to alter voters' fundamental views of the economy under Mr. Bush.
Democrats already have made the president's economic record -- three years of meager growth interrupted by six months of contraction -- the focus of their most searing criticism.
"The American economy is in serious trouble and the damage is piling up everywhere we look," Senate Banking Committee chairman Donald W. Riegle Jr., D-Mich., scolded Mr. Greenspan last week. "Any stunted recovery that we have is almost invisible, with increasing signs that we may fall back into a third stage of this recession."
After months of deflecting similar rebukes, the White House appears to have adopted a three-point strategy:
* Touting the strengths of its own record;
* Blaming Democrats in Congress for much of the current economic pain, and;
* Frightening voters into believing that things could get much worse under an administration headed by Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton.
If things look gloomy now, Mr. Brady admonished a Chicago audience last week, imagine economic life under the Arkansas governor, whom Mr. Brady sought to brand as a liberal-minded, tax-and-spend, sloganeering, saxophone-blowing throwback to the policies of the last Southern Democratic governor to make it to the White House.
That, of course, was Georgian Jimmy Carter, who suffered a landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980.