Economy moves to front of presidential campaign

Financial security emerging as key issue while voters worry about jobs, prices

Disposable-income level favors Bush

Election 2004: The Race For President

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August 15, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

With the nation slowly stepping out of a recession and Americans feeling uncertain about their jobs, the issue of work and the economy has moved to the forefront of the presidential race, overshadowed at times only by the war in Iraq.

"There's a tremendous sense of insecurity among American workers today," said Charles Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University Law School.

Employment and prosperity are always pivotal issues in presidential elections, from Herbert Hoover's "chicken in every pot" to Ronald Reagan's "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" But economic security is in a particularly prominent role this election. The candidates and their families are campaigning fiercely in so-called swing states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where the economy has been hit hard and jobs are a top priority.

President Bush says the economy is "turning the corner," a position bolstered by last week's news of a drop in claims for unemployment benefits and a rebound in consumer spending. Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, are pledging to create "a stronger America" with well-paid jobs.

Political analysts say the job picture hasn't been this dominant an issue since 1992, when Bill Clinton beat President George Bush as the country emerged from recession.

Putting the issue even more on the minds of Americans is that after the 1990s brought the greatest sustained economic growth in history, a sharp increase in gas and oil prices has exacerbated a decline in personal spending.

The job market has undergone a major structural shift in recent years. From 2001 to 2003, about 6.1 million workers lost jobs or were displaced from jobs they had held for less than three years, and 5.3 million lost or were displaced from jobs they had held for more than three years, according to a recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About 65 percent of the longer-term workers are re-employed, but more than half of them are in jobs that pay less than their previous ones, the study says. Also, a recent nonscientific Web survey by Monster.com found that two out of three people feel the job market is not improving.

"The truth is, what we're witnessing right now is the first generation of downwardly mobile Americans," said Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's labor education and research center.

Historic job loss

In addition to the uncertainty about jobs, corporate scandals have dominated the news, financial compensation for chief executive officers has gone up significantly, and the average wage has increased just enough to keep up with cost-of-living increases as labor unions have shrunk over the past quarter-century, Craver said.

The Democrats must impress upon the public that the Bush presidency has been the first since Hoover's more than 70 years ago to coincide with a loss of jobs in the nation, said Alan Draper, a professor of government who specializes in labor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.

Although the national unemployment rate is improving, it was up last month to 5.5 percent from 4.2 percent when Bush took office in January 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The job losses have been concentrated among low-wage jobs for workers without college degrees, especially in manufacturing. Those jobs are typically filled by blue-collar male workers in a demographic that Bush did well with in the last election, Draper said.

"So the question is whether the economic interest of that group will trump the kind of cultural issues that made them lean more toward Bush than one would have suspected," Draper said. "And the question now is whether Kerry can use the job issue to bring that group along to the extent he needs to."

In addition to the jobs that have been lost, "there are also many more workers who are worried about their wages being stagnant and their health care and their pensions being in danger," said David Kusnet, chief speechwriter for Clinton from 1992 to 1994. "So the issue isn't only what you would call the `desperately ill,' but also the `worried well.'"

About 52 percent of approximately 1,500 adults questioned in a Pew Research Center survey released last week said they disapprove of the way Bush is handling the economy, compared with 42 percent who approved.

Kerry vulnerable

Kerry and Edwards - who campaigns on his blue-collar background and is known for vivid rhetoric when talking about workers - are running as the ticket of the "working man." They are campaigning on opposition to corporate greed and the importance of keeping jobs in the United States.

To win, Kerry must emphasize that he has a plan for economic recovery that would create and protect good jobs and would deal with globalization, said Gary Chaison, industrial relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

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