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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Economy Praised on Both Sides of Campaign Trail

Bush and Kerry call themselves optimists on the recovery, but for quite different reasons.

June 16, 2004|Michael Finnegan and James Rainey | Times Staff Writers

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With the death of former President Reagan and a week of public commemorations still fresh in the public consciousness, both President Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry laid claim Tuesday to a Reaganesque mantle of optimism about the U.S. economy.

But the two men defined their optimism in strikingly divergent ways.

Bush, speaking at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden, said he was an optimist because he saw his policies -- in particular, income tax cuts -- already making things better. Kerry, however, told reporters at an airport outside Cincinnati that he was "an optimist about America" because "I think we can do better."

The president used relatively recent economic indicators to frame his rosier view -- 1.4 million jobs added since August, consumer spending up and, as he said, "vibrancy of the small-business sector." Kerry recited bleaker news -- a net loss of about 2 million private-sector jobs during Bush's term, decreasing buying power for many workers and increased healthcare costs.

Advisors to both sides expect the public's view of the economy to be critical in determining whether Bush will win a second term on Nov. 2.

The recovering but still uneven economy presents a "classic challenge" for Bush and the Massachusetts senator, said Democratic political consultant David Axelrod.

The two candidates want to show empathy for the current condition of Americans and hope for the future, he said.

"There is a trap for Kerry in that he doesn't want to be pegged as pessimistic and negative," Axelrod said. "But there is a trap for Bush in that he doesn't want to look oblivious to people's real pain."

Bush's remarks came during a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The president said he was not concerned about America's economic vitality and that he saw it as "strong and getting stronger."

"I am an optimistic person," Bush said. "I guess if you want to try to find something to be pessimistic about, you can find it, no matter how hard you look, you know?"

He said progress was being made despite "a recession, a national emergency, corporate scandals [and] a war."

Bush was responding to a reporter's query as Kerry planned to continue his focus on the economy for two weeks.

On Monday, the presumptive Democratic nominee revived his argument that the middle class was getting squeezed and that Bush should be held accountable.

Bush said that although the "ingredients" for continued economic growth were in place, more needed to be done.

He said he wanted to push an energy policy through Congress, cap litigation costs that hurt companies and reform healthcare policy.

Reminded by a reporter that his father failed to win a second term in 1992, when the public viewed the economy as being weak, the president said he expected voters this year to recognize that he had been a strong leader.

He said he proved his leadership by pushing through tax cuts -- encouraging "the entrepreneurial spirit to flourish by letting people keep more of their own money."

When asked about Bush's comments, Kerry said changes were needed to improve the standard of living for middle-class Americans. He repeated his call to rescind Bush's tax cut for families making more than $200,000 a year.

The money recouped by the federal government, the senator said, would help provide more funding for healthcare, education and other programs.

Earlier in the day, Kerry told several hundred labor activists at an AFL-CIO convention in Atlantic City, N.J., that Bush had pushed through the tax breaks and allowed the federal budget deficit to skyrocket, while reducing government support for Head Start, veterans' healthcare and police and fire departments.

"If you think that's compassionate conservatism, then [Vice President] Dick Cheney is Mr. Rogers," Kerry told the crowd, which gave him multiple standing ovations.

The creation of new jobs in recent months belied the worsening conditions that most Americans live in, Kerry said.

He said that jobs today paid an average of $9,000 less annually and that household income was disappearing because of 50% increases in healthcare, 35% jumps in college tuitions and other increased expenses.

Besides the rollback of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, Kerry has proposed tax credits for businesses that create jobs and the cancellation of tax breaks for some companies that move jobs overseas.

Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report. Finnegan reported from Ohio, Rainey from Los Angeles.

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