White House: Economic Forum Is Balanced
CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush has been singing a sunny tune about the economy's future ahead of Tuesday's economic forum in Waco, Texas.
The president has mentioned on at least five occasions in the last month that inflation is down, interest rates are low, monetary policy is sound and the foundation for growth is strong.
But among experts, concern persists about the direction of the economy.
Last March, a survey of nearly 200 leading economists found that 76 percent thought it unlikely the United States would hit a double-dip recession, in which the economy suffers a renewed contraction after several months of recovery from a downturn.
Today, the percentage of economists seeing a double-dip as unlikely has slipped to 69 percent.
The numbers are still far from panic, but are nonetheless a concern for the White House.
At Waco's Baylor University, the administration is bringing together 250 carefully selected workers, including farmers, teachers, corporate executives, ethics experts and others who will huddle with key Cabinet members, as well as President Bush and Vice President Cheney.
The White House says the forum is about picking the brains of people outside the Beltway but should not be interpreted as a signal it has no ideas of its own.
"The president believes it is important to get outside of Washington, D.C., and listen to the concerns and listen to the views of real working Americans - people from all across the country who have diverse points of view," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
But Democrats, like party chairman Terry McAuliffe, charge that their best minds -- like House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who first proposed an economic summit -- have been excluded from what was designed all along as an "infomercial" for the Bush administration.
"It's an embarrassment, what's going on down in Waco," McAuliffe said. "No members of Congress were invited. No Democrats were invited. Then we find out today that he's invited fund-raisers, people who have contributed money to him. So you know, if you're a special interest, then you get invited to Waco. But if you're not part of the special interest gravy train, then George Bush doesn't want you down in Waco."
The White House replies that McAuliffe's charges are false. Nobody checked attendees' party affiliations or political contributions and that the point was to meet with people other than elected officials.
"I certainly hope that they are not attacking the working Americans, the teachers and the farmers and the restaurant owners that are coming to this forum," McClellan said. "It really would be a sad commentary on the state of the Democratic Party."
The heightened attack by Democrats on Bush's stewardship of the economy and the president's forum itself are both being staged with an eye toward November's midterm election, in which control of Congress is up for grabs.
In this pre-electoral skirmish, one media analyst sees the Bush team slightly outsmarting its loyal opposition.
"The Democrats wanted something like this, and now they must be thinking, 'Be careful what you ask for,' because the president says he's reaching out to all points of view, but he's really just reaching out to those that he's comfortable with," said Robert Lichter, head of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
The White House is walking a tightrope, wanting to appear willing to listen to working people's ideas about how to boost the economy without seeming like it lacks a coherent vision of its own. To that end, aides to the president recite a mantra listing things the administration wants Congress to do, like passing laws on terrorism insurance, pension and energy reforms, and making last year's tax cuts permanent.
Fox News' James Rosen contributed to this report.