To Bash or Boost the Economy?

June 18, 1993

Who said this -- and when?

"Middle class families working longer hours for lower wages, economic growth in this recovery slowing to historically low levels, 9 million Americans out of work in the 25th month of what is supposed to be a recovery. . ."

President Clinton said it, on May 30.

Who said this -- and when?

"If someone had told you that. . . we would have a 20-year low in home mortgages, a seven-year high in housing sales, unemployment under 7 percent for the first time in a year and a half and 755,000 new jobs in the private sector, I think you would think that's a pretty good record."

President Clinton said it, on June 15.

So what's going on here? What changed in the first half of June that turned Mr. Clinton from a Gloomy Gus into a Booster Boy? Our guess is that the president has at last discovered that part of his plummet in popularity stemmed from his insistence on bad-mouthing the economy.

It is one thing for a candidate seeking the Oval Office to trash the record of the incumbent. It is quite a different story if he continues the same themes once he has moved into the White House. It seems Candidate Clinton got so used to beating up on poor George Bush that he forgot a political truism: Voters hold a president responsible for their economic welfare almost from the moment he takes his oath on the Capitol steps.

Sophisticates may insist quite rightly that a $6 trillion economy is too big a gorilla for even a president to control. The man in the White House is to a large extent a prisoner of circumstance. But this does not wash with an electorate told that if they will throw the bums out things will get better.

We submit that Mr. Clinton unwittingly contributed to his dissent in popular esteem by accentuating the negatives. Until very recently, he seemed no more able to welcome a recovery than George Bush could acknowledge a recession.

Whether David Gergen's presence in the White House or Mr. Clinton's own self-assessment is causing the change in administration rhetoric, it is welcome. The economy may not be spurting, but it is climbing gradually in a non-inflationary environment that promises 3 percent annual growth and unemployment figures as low as 6.5 percent by year's end. European governments would kill for such figures. Indeed, it is their recession that accounts for mounting U.S. trade deficits and poses the biggest threat to what the administration ought to herald as "the Clinton recovery."

The president may feel he has to sound warning bells to get Congress to act on his economic program. But this forces him to keep stressing the need for more taxes, a downer under any circumstance. And it has the ironic effect of undercutting his poll ratings and therefore diminishing his chances of getting his way on Capitol Hill.

His best tonic, for the moment, is to keep drinking from a glass half full, not half empty.

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