WASHINGTON -- In political terms, the most significant thing about the bad economic news reported this week is the timing. The disclosure that the economy grew at a rate of only 1.4 percent in the second quarter of the year -- the administration had forecast 2 percent -- means that there isn't time for a recovery soon enough to save President Bush's bacon.
The Republicans had based their campaign planning on the premise that the economy would bounce back this year at least enough to neutralize the issue. Now it is clear that even if the economy revives in the third quarter ending Sept. 30, there is little chance that the perception of economic conditions would change fast enough to rob the issue of its sting.
There is precedent for such a pattern. Harrison Hickman, a Democratic poll-taker, recalls the 1976 campaign in which Jimmy Carter narrowly unseated another Republican incumbent President Gerald R. Ford. "The economy started getting better in August and September," he says. "But the news never caught up with it fast enough to make a difference."
Two inferences can be drawn about the nature of the campaign.
The first is that Democratic nominee Bill Clinton can expect a receptive audience for his message of economic change.
The second is that the concern with the economy will make it extremely difficult for Mr. Bush to change the subject to foreign policy or "trust" or some other topic on which he can make a better case for a second term.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Bush tried to minimize the seriousness of the economic statistics.
"This kind of uneven growth is not unusual," he said while campaigning in Texas. Equally unsurprisingly, Mr. Clinton called the figures an indication of "a crisis . . . far more painful than the administration has ever understood." Hyperbole aside, the evidence seems to support the Democratic nominee on the political realities involved.
The best measure of the formidable task facing Mr. Bush in dealing with the economic issue is probably one that comes not from the Commerce Department or the Bureau of Labor Statistics but instead from a standard question poll-takers have been asking for years -- whether the country is headed "in the right direction" or "off on the wrong track." At the moment, the major polls show the "wrong track" answer coming back from 71 percent to 80 percent of Americans.
Except in time of a war or domestic turmoil, many polling experts believe that the question is answered most often on the basis of what Mr. Hickman called "the perception of where the economy is going."
More to the point for Mr. Bush, analyses of election returns and exit polls show that voters who give the "wrong track" response generally split about 2-to-1 against the incumbent.
Other measures of economic concerns tend to reinforce the view that the economy is not only sour but perceived as such. Peter Hart, who conducts surveys for the Wall Street Journal on a regular basis, points to the number of respondents who cite unemployment as the "No. 1 economic problem facing the country right now."
In mid-1991, when the glow of the victory in the Persian Gulf was still visible, only 30 percent named unemployment, compared to 34 percent who chose the federal deficit.
But by the winter, the "unemployment" share had risen to 52 percent or 53 percent, before dipping to 43 percent in May, then rising again to 50 percent this month -- far and away the most pressing concern.
The economic statistics alone cannot forecast the outcome of a presidential election.
It is quite possible that Mr. Bush can save his own candidacy by raising enough doubts about Mr. Clinton so that the voters will be afraid to elect him.
It is equally possible that some other issue will emerge to dominate the campaign or that Mr. Clinton will commit the kind of political gaffe that would cripple his candidacy.
But the condition of the economy is weak and likely to remain so long enough for Mr. Bush to remain on the defensive on the single most important issue on the national agenda today.