Bush hopes for lift from upbeat economic reports

WASHINGTON, – President George W. Bush, trying to lift his sagging approval ratings, has launched a push to take credit for recent positive economic news the public has largely shrugged off.

In one example of the pessimism, an ABC/Washington Post poll taken in the month ended Nov. 13 showed 64 percent of Americans described the economy as poor or not so good, with only 36 percent judging it to be good or excellent.

That dovetails with Nov. 17-20 Gallup poll that found just 36 percent of Americans thought the economy was getting better while 58 percent saw it as getting worse.

“I think the White House is very frustrated,” said Cesar Conda, former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. “There’s been good data on gross domestic product, employment and business spending, and even oil prices are receding. But it’s not reflected in the polling data on Americans’ views.”

In addition to a desire to stem a slide in the president’s own popularity, Bush aides hope honing the economic message will help create a more favorable environment for Republicans ahead of next year’s congressional elections.

Some congressional Republicans fear their chances in the 2006 elections may suffer because of Bush’s intensive campaign early this year to sell a proposal for Social Security change.

The plan proved unpopular and some in the party feel it was a distraction when the White House should have been doing more to showcase economic improvement.

The latest Gallup survey put Bush’s overall approval rating at 38 percent, just above the 37 percent record low.

Carroll Doherty, editor at the Pew Research Center, said worry over economic factors like higher gasoline prices and the General Motors layoffs were contributing to weakness in Bush’s popularity.

But he said the dominant factor seemed to be angst about Iraq and that, to some extent, may be coloring views of Bush’s leadership on other issues, including the economy.

Bush will tour a construction machinery plant in Kernersville, North Carolina on Monday and deliver a speech that will highlight signs the economy is “cooking along,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

After a report showing the economy grew a brisk 4.3 percent in the third quarter, the White House bumped up its projection for 2005 gross domestic product growth to 3.5 percent from a mid-year forecast of 3.4 percent.

Bush has trumpeted news of a 215,000 jump in November jobs as evidence there is “every reason to be optimistic about our economic future.” But Allan Hubbard, Bush’s top economic adviser, acknowledged to reporters there was a “disconnect” between numbers like the jobs figure and how Americans feel.

He said higher energy costs were making people “feel ill at ease” and worries about Hurricane Katrina’s impact were at play, too.

“The other thing is, to be perfectly honest, I probably have not been doing a good job — I should be spending more time with all of you talking about how the economy is doing,” Hubbard said.

His pledge to be more accessible came as some Republicans privately vent frustration that the White House did not move sooner to give a greater focus to the economy.

On the policy front, Bush aides are hopeful Congress will agree this month on a budget-cutting plan, which would soothe conservative anger at deficit-spending.

Less certain are prospects for extending Bush’s tax cuts. If the cuts are not extended this year, some Republicans hope to make the push to do so a theme in next year’s elections.

One uncertainty about next year is who will be the point person within the Cabinet to pitch Bush’s economic program. There has been speculation that Treasury Secretary John Snow may leave as early as late December or early next year.

Former White House economist Glenn Hubbard and White House chief of staff Andrew Card are among those mentioned as possible replacements if Snow leaves.