New economic figures are good news for Clinton



WASHINGTON -- The White House has been reveling in the 234 votes President Clinton captured in the House to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement. In the long run, however, there is much more reason for the administration to be encouraged by the new economic numbers.

The decline in the unemployment rate from 6.8 percent to 6.4 percent last month, the steepest in a decade, coupled with the rise of 208,000 in non-farm jobs suggests the kind of movement toward economic health that is far more important politically than Clinton's success on NAFTA.

The same can be said of the accompanying rise in the length of the factory workweek, now the longest since World War II, and in overtime. Overall, the leading economic indicators were up for the third month in a row, this time a half-point, which usually points to solid recovery.

The unemployment figures are not as intrinsically reliable as political indicators as they used to be when most joblessness came in blue-collar work and was essentially temporary. These days the unemployed are more likely to be white-collar workers in service industries, often high-tech, whose jobs are lost permanently because of changes in the marketplace.

But a decline large enough to be statistically significant, as was the case last month, is the kind of evidence the administration needs to make the case for economic optimism at a time when that has been extremely difficult.

For Clinton and the Democrats, the timing could not be better. They are facing, first, a midterm congressional election whose results can have much to do with the president's ability to deal with Congress over the two years before his own re-election campaign is the focus of attention.

If historic trends continue next year, Democrats could expect to lose at least a couple of seats in the Senate and, more to the point, perhaps 25 or so in the House of Representatives, raising the possibility of a 200-seat GOP minority and Newt Gingrich to deal with in 1995 and 1996.

But those trends can be altered by economic conditions. Poll-takers have found, for example, that voters who believe the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction" tend to split 2-to-1 against incumbents, other things being equal.

Those numbers have not been encouraging for the White House recently. The "wrong track" number dropped below 30 percent after Clinton's election, but it has risen steadily since he took office to pass 50 percent and move toward 60 percent, usually an indication of serious political trouble ahead.

None of this suggests that the makeup of the next Senate will be determined by the condition of the economy next fall. There are too many seats being contested in which there are vacancies or incumbents with special problems of their own. But there are always a few House seats that are so closely contested that national factors may tip the balance one way or the other.

For Clinton himself, the good economic news provides a basis for his apparently indefatigable optimism and boosterism. Although no one can say with any certainty that an improvement in the economy has anything to do with the president's policies, he can claim some credit just as he can expect the blame if the economy is sour.

The president's focus at the moment is on the health-care reform question, which he says -- correctly -- can have an important influence on the long-range health of the economy. He is also spending a lot of his time talking about street crime, number one among voter concerns in the opinion polls right now, and about welfare reform, always a crowd-pleaser with working-class voters resentful about what they see as a waste of their tax money.

But there is no issue short of the threat of a nuclear war that is as important to Americans as job security. That was never more apparent than in the collapse of the support for President George Bush after the Persian Gulf War as the concern with economic issues became epidemic.

In that election, the battle cry inside the Clinton campaign was "It's the economy, stupid." That slogan hasn't been forgotten inside the Clinton White House, which is why those new figures are so important.

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