WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday distanced himself from his economic advisers' claim that the economy would add 2.6 million jobs this year, enough to more than erase all of the job losses incurred during his first term.
Bush declined to endorse the jobs estimate during a joint Oval Office appearance with Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Asked about the projection, Bush said, "I think the economy is growing. And I think it's going to get stronger."
Bush's comment came a day after Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans refused to publicly endorse the job estimate, issued nine days ago by Bush's Council of Economic Advisers.
"I think we are going to create a lot of jobs," Snow said Tuesday in Washington state. "How many I don't know, but we're going to keep working on it."
Congressional Democrats yesterday assailed Bush for providing only "broken promises and mixed messages" to the 2.3 million workers who have lost their jobs since Bush took office in 2001. In a letter to the president, Democratic leaders said the shift on jobs estimates raised serious questions about whether "the administration's economic policies are in disarray."
"We urge you to provide meaningful jobs predictions that all Americans, including your own Cabinet, would find credible," the six Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, wrote.
Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential front-runner, said during a campaign stop in Dayton, Ohio: "Now they're already walking backwards on their own predictions. What it says to me is they don't know what they're talking about when it comes to economic policy."
Last week, Gregory Mankiw, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, sent shock waves through Capitol Hill and the campaign trail by advocating the benefits of having U.S. businesses ship jobs overseas.
"This president faces a credibility gap with his own economic team that's as wide as the employment gap for millions of American workers," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat who was an adviser in the Clinton White House.
Bush's decision not to endorse the jobs projection, included in his annual economic report to Congress, indicates concern that the actual number of jobs to be added before November's election will fall short of that mark. It also removes a benchmark by which the effectiveness of Bush's policies could be measured. Democrats, who earlier denounced the estimate as overly optimistic, could have used it against the president if actual job growth fell below Bush's own higher projection.
While the White House would not affirm its jobs projection, it also would not acknowledge erring in its prediction. White House spokesman Scott McClellan, in a sometimes contentious briefing with reporters, said, "People can debate the numbers all they want, but the president's going to be looking at the actual number of jobs being created. And the number of jobs being created is growing."
The economy has added 366,000 jobs since August.
The Tribune's William Neikirk in Washington and Jill Zuckman in Dayton, Ohio, contributed to this report.