LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The economic conference that President-elect Bill Clinton will convene here Monday is shaping up as a critical element in his drive to convince Americans that the economy still faces fundamental long-term problems despite recent signs of an upturn.
With economic indicators now suggesting the nation is emerging from the recession that helped propel Clinton into the White House, aides say the President-elect intends to use the two-day conference to highlight lingering long-term problems in the economy--and build support for the incoming Administration's agenda to deal with them.
"The No. 1 goal," said one aide, "is to educate the American people about the long-term structural problems we face and the steps we can take to alleviate those problems."
The session will gather 329 corporate executives, small-business owners, labor leaders, educators and economists at a downtown conference center here for 13 1/2 hours of televised sessions, mostly moderated by Clinton himself.
Those attending range from corporate chiefs such as John Sculley, chairman of Apple Computer, to community activists such as Brenda Shockley, executive director of Community Build in South-Central Los Angeles. Many of those invited were Clinton supporters during the campaign, but the list also contains several dozen Republicans such as Drew Lewis, chairman of the Business Roundtable and secretary of transportation in the Ronald Reagan Administration.
Clinton will be joined at each of the seven planned sessions by Vice President-elect Al Gore and the new Administration's top economic officials: Lloyd Bentsen, the Treasury secretary-designate; Leon E. Panetta, the incoming director of the Office of Management and Budget; Robert E. Rubin, Clinton's choice as director of the National Economic Council; Robert B. Reich, the incoming labor secretary; and Laura D'Andrea Tyson, who will chair the Council of Economic Advisers.
At each session, Clinton and his advisers will be joined around an oval table by a rotating group of 25 invited guests. The remaining guests will watch from nearby auditorium seats and ask questions at the end of each session.
The event will be broadcast in its entirety on C-SPAN and National Public Radio, with portions expected to be aired on Cable News Network and the other television networks. Aides say Clinton will even take call-in questions at three points in the sessions from NPR listeners.
Even to Clinton advisers, the conference's exact purpose has been somewhat murky. When transition chairman Vernon E. Jordan Jr. last month grandly christened the event an economic "summit," many outsiders assumed it was intended as a drafting session at which Clinton's economic plan would be finalized.
Since then, however, Clinton aides have worked assiduously to play down such expectations--even while watching the guest list swell from an anticipated 100 to the current 329.
Planners now say the conference, which gets down to business Monday after a welcoming reception this evening, will serve two principal purposes.
While Clinton is not looking to rewrite his economic plan, aides say he is hoping for a "reality check" on how his ideas might best be implemented. For example, Clinton supports a tax credit on investments and accelerated government spending on public works, but details of timing and magnitude have yet to be decided.
"He has a plan," said Mickey Kantor, a member of the transition board of directors and the conference coordinator. "But in terms of the details, in terms of the approach, he wants to hear from a broad cross section of Americans."
Just as important, aides say, the conference has become part of the continuing effort to build support for the agenda that Clinton unveiled during the campaign.
"It will help to build consensus for what he wants to do," said John Emerson, a Los Angeles political activist, and one of those designing the conference.
The prospect of a televised extravaganza has drawn scorn from some economists, who dismiss the event as a meaningless exercise in public relations.
"You're going to get a large Phil Donahue show," said Lawrence Chimerine, a senior adviser to the DRI-McGraw Hill forecasting firm. "I don't see what you accomplish with that."
"Once you get more than a dozen people in the room, it turns into theater," said David Hale, an economist with Kemper Financial Services in Chicago.
Other observers see the conference as a positive sign that Clinton intends to fulfill his campaign promise to focus first on the economy.
"If nothing else, it's a public acknowledgment that he's concerned about the economy, and he's going to be paying attention to it," said Ross DeVol, an analyst with WEFA Group, a Bala-Cynwyd, Pa., forecasting firm. "One could say that's somewhat of a public relations ploy--but it's a strong message to be sending."