TCS Daily

Good Economy, Bad Polls, What Gives?

By Patrick Hynes - July 27, 2005 12:00 AM

The latest economic news is almost all good. The U.S. economy is presently in its fourteenth consecutive quarter of growth and it has created over 3.7 million new jobs since May of 2003. Unemployment is down to 5 percent, lower at this point of the Bush presidency than at a similar interval during the Clinton presidency. The booming economy has blessed cash-strapped state governments with found money. Even more astounding (or perhaps not so astounding to TCS readers), tax receipts are up, cutting the federal budget deficit by $94 billion, more than a fifth of it's previously projected size.

And the majority of Americans will have none of it.

While the current panic in Washington relates to waning support for the war in Iraq, the truly outstanding data in recent opinion polls is the American public's broad and enduring skepticism about the state of the economy. In the most recent American Research Group survey from late June, 63% of all Americans rate the condition of the economy as "bad," "very bad," or "terrible." 65% of respondents in the latest Zogby poll give President George W. Bush either a "fair" or "poor" rating on jobs and the economy. And in a series of push questions in the latest Democracy Corps survey, respondents agree with negative statements about the economy (read: the Democrats' line) over positive ones (the president's line) to the tune of 60% to 37%.

What's going on here? Why is the mainstream so out of the mainstream?

To be sure, a series of high-profile and highly symbolic economic hardships have trumped the overall good news about the economy. Layoffs at General Motors and threatened pension defaults at United Airlines have instilled fear. The BRAC Commission's release of recommended base closures has left tens of thousands worrying about their jobs. For the first time in a decade, a stagnant stock market is making almost no headline news. And of course constant hand-wringing about gas prices, outsourcing, and the Chinese bid to buy Unocal leads many Americans to believe we are not in control of our own economic future. So while the economic news is good, the news about the economy is depressing indeed.

But I believe something else is going on here. President Bush has not given a major speech on the economy since the 2004 election.

President Bush needs to learn a lesson his father never did. Unless a president -- especially a Republican president -- talks constantly with the American people about the economy, he will be seen by the public as doing nothing about it. This is especially true when the news is filtered through a hostile press corps. And while doing nothing about the economy may at times be the best way to strengthen it, this view is not shared by the majority of Americans.

There is another problem, as well. President Bush's hallmark initiative this year was supposed to be Social Security reform. The public perception is that these efforts are going nowhere. This is a big problem for the administration because President Bush has built his push for Social Security reform on the idea that the system, and therefore Americans' retirement security and the nation's long-term fiscal health, is staring down the barrel of a crisis. President Bush toured sixty cities in sixty days (and even more, subsequently) in a campaign to convince Americans of this crisis and sell his plan to fix it. Unfortunately, while the majority of Americans is still unsure of the cure, a growing majority has come to acknowledge the disease. According to a mid-June CBS News poll, fully 92% of Americans believe Social Security is either currently in a "crisis," currently in "serious trouble," or currently in "some trouble." Moreover, 57% of respondents think Social Security's problems are "so serious they need to be fixed now." The president has exhausted his political capital convincing people their economic future is doomed.

Of course, President Bush's political opponents are always available and willing to poor-mouth the economy. When he first entered Washington, all the talk was of recession. That ended quickly, but Democrats clutched on to the budget deficit, caused of course by President Bush's tax cuts "for the rich." Then it was unemployment; the worst economy since Hoover, they told us. But the jobs situation improved during the 2004 campaign, so the "disappearing middle class" became the freak-out du jour. The president won the majority of middle class votes, so that wouldn't do. So the falling dollar would have us all standing in soup lines in our barrel-and-suspender ensembles. But then the dollar rose. So today it's income inequality and the trade deficit with China that spells certain doom. In an economy so big and so diverse, some grim-sounding statistic will always pop, some indicator will always lag. And a minority party, desperate for power, will only too gladly exaggerate their meaning.

The White House has to speak with the American people about the state of the economy honestly, soothingly, confidently... and constantly. But time and circumstance is not on their side. Just as the Iraq War has kept President Bush from talking about the economy for the past several months, the next couple will be consumed with talk of Judge Roberts, the trial of Saddam Hussein, the CIA leak case, and the 2005 off-year elections. It may be 2006 before President Bush gets another opportunity to tout the strength and dynamism of the U.S. economy.

Communicating an optimistic vision for our shared economic future has become too low a priority for the Bush administration. And that is the real crisis.

Patrick Hynes is a public relations consultant and freelance writer. He is the proprietor of



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