WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Every time a favorable economic statistic pops up -- like the slight drop in the unemployment rate and the jump in new payroll jobs reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics yesterday -- we hear how lucky President Clinton is.
At least that's what the Republicans say who have convinced themselves that if only the presidential election had been held a month or two later than it was, George Bush would still be sitting in the Oval Office and Bill Clinton would be plucking chickens back in Arkansas.
There undoubtedly is some truth to the argument that Bush wasn't wrong about his stubborn insistence that economy recovery was on its way but that his timing was off. Still, the psychological impact of Clinton's November election and a ray of national optimism resulting from it didn't hurt, either.
The voters in casting their ballots for Clinton -- and for Ross Perot -- were signaling that they had had enough of the status quo, something that the Republicans ignore in saying now that Clinton's $31 billion economic stimulus package isn't needed. If the labor statistics just out were all gold, they might have a case, but the new numbers are only grounds for hope, not complacency.
The unemployment rate went up only from 7 percent to 7.1 percent, and although 365,000 new jobs were reported for February, the largest monthly gain in four years, 90 percent of them were in part-time work for people seeking full-time employment. Also, more than 2 of every 3 new jobs were in low-wage retail and service industries.
There is widespread agreement that where the job growth must come to be truly significant is in the manufacturing industries -- the point that Perot continued to make in a visit to Washington the other day. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report did note that the average factory work week had gone up to 41.5 hours, indicating that employers are stretching their existing work forces and soon may have to increase hiring.
The latest employment figures came just as President Clinton had signed the latest $5.7 billion extension of unemployment benefits, giving the jobless an additional 20 to 26 weeks of federal support once their basic 26 weeks have run out. The extension caused hardly a ripple in breezing through the Democratic-controlled Congress -- a sharp contrast with what happened in most of the Bush years.
Through most of 1991, the former president, always struggling to overcome the image of a political leader with little feel for the victims of the recession, used his veto and threat of veto to stymie Democratic efforts to extend jobless benefits. Only after the political damage was done to him did he accept a modified extension in October of 1991. By that time, the Democrats had done a good job of painting him as uncaring.
Although Clinton clearly has some tough fights ahead of him with Congress, the early breaks in the gridlock of the Bush years are helping to create a sense that things really are changing in Washington with the election of a Democrat to the White House.
The Clinton successes so far have been fairly easy ones, from the jobless benefits extension to the family leave bill that Bush also blocked during his tenure. But recording these early victories, however easy they have been to achieve, helps Clinton create a climate of movement and activity to go along with his personal activist style.
He maintained that sense in what he said in signing the jobless benefits extension. "In the end, what we have to do is extend jobs and not unemployment," the new president preached. In the meantime, he played the compassionate leader who understands the plight of the unemployed.
The extension, he said, will help 1.5 million jobless Americans "making the rent and buying groceries and paying for school clothes."
For long months in 1991, by contrast, Bush talked of extending benefits for the jobless in terms of how it would further increase the federal deficit -- a legitimate concern but not likely to mollify men and women whose benefits had run out. Clinton demonstrated as a candidate that he knew how to identify with voters' personal life concerns, and he is continuing to do so as president.
Whether it is good luck or creating a positive climate for economic recovery, Clinton has been the beneficiary in public approval so far. The real test will come, as he said, not in being able to extend jobless benefits, but it making them less necessary.