The Blog

Labor Day by the Numbers

A look at what the polls are telling us about confidence, the economy, and the White House futures market.

8:00 AM, Sep 2, 2003 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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SOME THINGS were unchanged yesterday as, since 1894, we celebrated the holiday called Labor Day. Millions of hot dogs were grilled, and Democrats took to their soap boxes to proclaim their loyalty to the trade unions that provide the financial and logistical muscle on which they depend.

But the nature of the day off with families has changed a bit. Labor Day has become a holiday on which Americans relax with their families and their cell phones, Blackberries, PDAs, and other devices that allow them to be in touch with their offices 24/7. Today we return to work, and not reluctantly--polls show that the vast majority of workers are satisfied with their jobs.

Karlyn Bowman, Washington's preeminent poll analyst, says that two surveys taken twenty years apart find no change in the proportion (65 percent) who would "take the same job without hesitation."

Although only 15 percent of workers say they are dissatisfied with their own job security, 55 percent tell Harris pollsters that the country is still in a recession, 50 percent say they know someone who has lost a job recently, and 80 percent say that this is a bad time to find a quality job. Yet consumers' confidence in the future is on the rise and CEOs in the retail and other sectors are also increasingly optimistic.

ALL OF WHICH is more than a little confusing to the political analysts who are trying to form an early view of president Bush's prospects for re-election. For the first time, some polls are showing that more people think he should be denied a second term (49 percent) than favor his return to the White House when his current term expires (44 percent), a result distorted by the failure of the pollsters to name one of the several unpopular Democrats likely to oppose the president. Although Bush's 36 percent disapproval rating is his highest since September 11, 2001, 53 percent approve of the way the president is handling his job.

White House analysts know that "it's the economy, stupid" is still a valid summary of the political situation. Bowman notes that "When asked what will be most important in determining your vote for president, 48 percent said the economy, 23 percent the course of the war on terror, and 24 percent said they rate both issues equally." So Bush's reelection team is trumpeting the fact that the economy is now growing at an annual rate of close to 5 percent, thanks, they say, to the president's wisdom in cutting taxes to forestall a major downturn. The increase in defense spending and the Fed's loose monetary policy are receiving less mention from all the president's men.

But that may not ensure that Bush will waltz into the White House for another term. For one thing, an amazing spurt in productivity is enabling most firms to increase their output without taking on staff. Economists say that applications for unemployment insurance have slowed sufficiently (now under 400,000 per week) to lead them to expect a downturn in the unemployment rate, though they won't say when that turnaround will occur.

Not soon enough to suit the Bushies, who know that the unemployment rate won't turn down until long after the current recovery takes hold. They believe that the job market must show real life by early 2004 if voters are to absorb that fact by November, when they have to choose between Bush and whomever the Democratic primaries spit out as his opponent.

SINCE THE PRESIDENT has already cut taxes as much as he can between now and election day, all he can do is hope that the recovery moves from its present jobless phase into a job-creating mode. In popular press parlance, he has no more bullets in his gun.

And the economy is not the only area in which the president has now been reduced from a player to a spectator. If he persists in refusing to come to grips with the fact that he who would call the tune must pay the piper in Iraq, he can do little more than preach patience in the face of unsettling losses. The administration is determined not to cede control of the pacification and rebuilding of Iraq to France and others who wimped out when it came to confronting Saddam's protracted defiance of the United Nations.

But the president seems equally determined not to confront voters with the cost in blood and treasure of his go-it-more-or-less-alone, muscular foreign policy. In a speech last week Bush did refer vaguely to a need for more "resources," thereby avoiding saying words like "money" and "troops." Understandable, since he has neither of those precious commodities available. The federal deficit is already headed past $500 billion, to over 5 percent of GDP, with no decline in the flow of red ink in sight, and the military is already stretched so thin in over 100 countries that it is having difficulty maintaining current force levels in Iraq.