Focusing economic policy on people is Clinton forte ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- In case you're still wondering why Bill Clinton is sitting in the Oval Office and George Bush is getting acquainted with his new neighbors in Houston, take a gander at what's being said these days about the state of the economy.

Republicans, as they did all through the 1992 presidential campaign, are quoting economists who profess to see recovery right around the corner, if not already here. They cite obscure statistics to make their case, like the annual rate of economic growth and various productivity figures. Meanwhile, President Clinton continues to talk about how many average Americans are still out of work or afraid they will be -- probably the single most significant factor in his election.

In his weekend radio talk, Clinton acknowledged that "lately we've had some good news about our economy. But the chances are you're not satisfied, and neither am I, because our economy isn't numbers. It's people and how their lives are affected." He noted that "more than 16 million of us are looking for full-time jobs and can't find them."

During the campaign, Clinton put the nation's economic situation in terms of people and their hardships, while Bush quoted economists' assurances that things were getting better, or soon would. Based on the statistics that are coming out now -- including a slip in the unemployment rate -- they seem to have been right, although they have been somewhat like the television weatherman who says if it hasn't stopped raining yet, it eventually will.

Last year's New Hampshire primary provided an early sign. While Bush sent Vice President Dan Quayle to the state to tell the recession-wracked voters there that their president really did care about them, Clinton was beating the bushes listening to their stories and promising relief.

Even when Bush rousted himself from the comforts of the West Wing and went there himself, he seemed to trivialize the plight of the natives by bringing Arnold Schwarzenegger along to cheerlead for him. His own wooden comment, "Message: I care," had all the spontaneity of a voice-mail greeting.

During the campaign, Bush seemed unable to grasp why the voters were down on him. Only a year earlier he was the toast of the planet as leader of the coalition that had kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. But because he seemed more interested in what was going on abroad than in the beleaguered communities of his own country, voters turned away from him.

Clinton's campaign motto, "Putting People First," conveyed precisely what voters came to think Bush wasn't doing. When, for example, he vetoed the family-leave legislation that Clinton has just signed, it was easy for the Democrats to paint him as more interested in protecting the businessmen who opposed the bill.

In the fall debates, Bush once again seemed not to connect with the plight of average Americans having trouble making ends meet. When a woman in the second presidential debate in Richmond asked him how he personally was affected by the "deficit" -- she seemed to mean "recession" -- he stammered, saying at first he didn't get the question. That, the Democrats quickly commented, was exactly the point, that George Bush "just doesn't get it" when it came to real life on economically troubled Main Street.

Clinton at the same time was doing his best to show that he did get it. Answering the woman's question, he walked over to her and started talking about the hurts he had witnessed directly among his neighbors in Arkansas. And driving home the point about caring was Ross Perot, the little spark plug from Dallas who always talked in terms of helping the little guy, whom he understood because he was one of them.

The debate now has centered on whether, in light of the improved economic picture, Clinton's proposed stimulus package of a reported $31 billion is really needed. Many economists question whether it will make much difference in the overall health of the economy.

But if, as some administration officials contend, it will generate up to 200,000 new jobs, that will be a very visible demonstration of Clinton's concern. His political strategists understood that "jobs" was the password to electing their man. It continues to hold the key to his prospects for voter popularity and support.

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