WASHINGTON -- President Bush is intent on avoiding the economic policy pitfalls that tripped up his father. Today's economic forum in Texas is part of that effort, intended to show him engaged with the nation's problems even as he vacations.
Democrats are belittling the forum -- with its hand-picked participants -- as a public relations gesture. Many economists are skeptical that it will do much to calm the jittery economy or restore consumer confidence.
''I think it's pretty much a complete waste of time. I think the president's time would be better spent just being on vacation,'' said Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economic adviser to the first President Bush.
Most of the president's Cabinet was headed for the campus of Baylor University in Waco -- about a half hour's drive from the president's central Texas ranch.
Bush's advisers hope the session will demonstrate that his administration recognizes that Americans are anxious about the fragile economy and turbulent stock markets.
''I see this as an opportunity to have a concentrated engagement with 200 to 250 people whose opinion I respect,'' Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The scheduling itself is curious. The forum coincides with a meeting of Federal Reserve policy makers and comes a day before the chief executives of publicly traded companies must certify to the Securities and Exchange Commission the accuracy of their financial statements.
Some analysts see the timing as an effort by the White House to get out in front of any negative developments on the corporate accountability front that could further roil the markets.
O'Neill dismissed such speculation. ''The absurdities that people will suggest about things like this are just mind-boggling to me,'' O'Neill said.
Few analysts expected much from the forum. But some suggest it can do no harm -- and does show the president is involved in the economic-policy process.
''There's no down side to that,'' said Mark Zandi, chief economist for the Economy.com consulting service. He said government policy-makers are ''getting boxed in: they really don't have too many tools at their disposal to combat the slide in confidence.''
The gathering of economists, government officials, investors, teachers, workers and small-business owners is being billed by the White House as a diverse assemblage.
White House chief of staff Andrew Card called it ''a good cross section of our economy.''
But among the featured participants are wealthy backers of Bush and GOP causes. Meanwhile, vocal critics of the administration's economic policies have been excluded, as have members of Congress.
With control of both houses of Congress at stake in November's midterm elections, Democrats have been quick to pounce.
Democratic party chief Terry McAuliffe cited an ''administration adrift'' and sought to revive criticism Democrat Bill Clinton leveled against Bush's father in 1992 that he was out of touch with economic concerns of ordinary Americans.
''A decade later, it's a different George Bush, but the same message,'' McAuliffe told a weekend meeting in Las Vegas of the Democratic National Committee.
The younger Bush has always been keenly aware of the role the economy -- sluggish then as now -- played in his father's 1992 re-election defeat. This Bush, who has seen his own war-buoyed approval ratings slowly slipping, has struggled to avoid the same criticism.
Responding Monday to the barrage of fresh Democratic charges, White House spokesman Scott McClellan characterized the forum as a chance ''to generate ideas to strengthen our economy and make workers and small investors more secure.''
''It's really a serious policy discussion,'' McClellan insisted.
Business groups also cheered the session, seeing it as an attempt to press their own agenda.
''It's a great platform for me on behalf of the business community to speak candidly about what we have to do to strengthen the economy,'' said U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue.
But big business' embrace is only fueling more Democratic criticism -- and stoking the skepticism of economists.
''The odds of it doing any good are small,'' said David Wyss, chief economist for Standard and Poors. He called it ''mostly a stunt.''
But Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics in New York, said he accepted a White House invitation to participate knowing full well that politics played an important role.
''I don't think anyone has any illusions on what goes on in Washington politics,'' Sinai said. But, he added: ''This administration is run by business people and they know the value of contingency planning. I think the forum is constructive and helpful.''
Tom Raum has reported on national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.
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