WASHINGTON President Bush distanced himself Wednes-day from White House predictions that the economy will add 2.6 million jobs this year, the second embarrassing economic retreat in a week and new fuel for Democratic criticism.
''Now they're already walking backward on their own predictions,'' Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry said in Ohio, where unemployment has risen from 3.9 percent to 6 percent since Bush took office.
The jobs controversy came on the heels of White House economist N. Gregory Mankiw's assertion that ''outsourcing'' American jobs overseas was good for the U.S. economy in the long run. Bush, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and other Republicans quickly disavowed Mankiw's remarks, and the economist had to apologize for a ''lack of clarity.''
Jobs are a sensitive political issue for Bush as he fights to keep his own job in a second term. The economy has lost 2.2 million payroll jobs since Bush took office, the worst job-creation record of any president since Herbert Hoover.
The forecast of 2.6 million new jobs was contained in the annual Economic Report of the President, a 412-page volume of charts, graphs and text that predicted a bright economic future. The forecast came under special scrutiny after Treasury Secretary John Snow and Commerce Secretary Don Evans refused to repeat the optimistic prediction as they toured Washington and Oregon to promote the president's economic programs.
Bush himself avoided embracing the 2.6 million number when asked about it Wednesday.
''I think the economy is growing,'' Bush said. ''And I think it's going to get stronger.'' He said he was pleased that 366,000 jobs have been added since August.
''We are interested in reality,'' presidential spokesperson Scott McClellan said.
Democrats jumped on the White House retreat.
''This administration is floundering on the most basic concern of most Americans jobs,'' said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
''When two key architects of the president's economic policy won't even back up the White House's own projections, it raises serious questions about their credibility. This is nothing less than a candid admission by the Bush administration that its economic program fails to create jobs.''
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, said, ''President Bush is rapidly becoming the permanently surprised president. He is surprised that every economic prediction that he and his administration make does not pan out.''
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill, a senior adviser in the Clinton White House, said, ''This president faces a credibility gap with his own economic team that's as wide as the employment gap for millions of American workers.''
McClellan said the economic forecast was simply the work of ''number crunchers.'' He said Bush who bills himself as the first president with a Master of Business Administration degree was not a statistician or predictor.
''People can debate the numbers all they want,'' McClellan said. ''The president is interested in the actual number of jobs being created, and the president is interested in making sure that everybody who is looking for a job can find one.''
Trying to turn the tables on Kerry, McClellan said, ''Some people want to turn back and take actions that would raise taxes on people at a time when our economy is really starting to grow strong.'' Kerry has proposed cutting the deficit by half, at least, in a first term, in part through repeal of Bush tax cuts for wealthier Americans.
The administration's economic forecast, on which it based its budget projections, predicted that payroll jobs would average 132.7 million per month this year, an increase of 2.6 million from the 2003 monthly average.
However, to achieve that average, the economy would have to create more than 2.6 million jobs in coming months because the level of jobs at the beginning of the year was lower than the administration had built into its forecast.
For January, there were 130.2 million Americans working, according to the Labor Depart-ment's payroll survey. To achieve its forecast of 132.7 million jobs on average each month this year would require the creation of 460,000 jobs per month over the next 11 months, according to an analysis by two liberal think tanks, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute.
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