US President George W. Bush has no shortage of words to describe the ailing economy.
He began this year warning of “the risk of a downturn” and a “period of uncertainty.” Time and again, Bush has said the nation is in “a rough patch.” He calls the current climate “a slowdown.” In the Rose Garden last week, he spoke somberly of “very difficult times, very difficult.”
But there is one word that Bush has not used: recession.
By avoiding the word “recession” when consumers are feeling squeezed and some economists think the nation is already in one, Bush is taking criticism for not telling it like it is. But Friday’s less-dismal-than-expected jobs numbers, coupled with Wednesday’s less-dismal-than-expected economic data, left him the wiggle room he needs to keep the word out of his lexicon a while longer.
“I know it’s tough times,” he said on Friday during a session with employees of a technology company in this city outside St. Louis, Missouri.
He called the unemployment report, which showed 20,000 jobs lost last month, “a sign that this economy is not as robust as any of us would like.”
No president wants to admit a recession on his watch, though Bush talks about the recession of 2001, mostly to suggest he inherited a bad hand from president Bill Clinton. And no president wants to create a self-fulfilling prophecy with downbeat chatter that might further shake consumer confidence.
Still, Bush walks a fine line as he reconciles the latest numbers with the pain many Americans feel.
“He’s in a very difficult position,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who specializes in political rhetoric. “He wants to reflect how Americans feel but at the same time not damage Republican hopes for the fall. If he acknowledges a recession he’ll have to take responsibility for it. But if he rejects a recession, he’ll look out of touch.”
The White House says there is no reason for Bush to talk about recession absent concrete proof the nation is in one, and it has been assertive about pushing back. When NBC News reported on Wednesday that first-quarter growth data showed the nation just short of a recession, Tony Fratto, the deputy White House press secretary, sent a complaint to the anchor, Brian Williams.
“I e-mailed Brian and his producers and said, ‘No, you’re wrong,’” Fratto recalled.
Aboard Air Force One on the way to Missouri on Friday, Fratto dismissed talk of even a mild recession, saying the new jobs numbers were “not in recessionary territory.”
The comment drew a sharp rebuke from Representative Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, who ridiculed Bush and his advisers, saying they had not gotten the news that “this is a recession that is hurting more Americans every day.”
“Recession” is an emotionally freighted word, but it also has a technical meaning, and with Wall Street whispering another r-word — “rebound” — some economists say Bush is correct not to use “recession” just yet. Michael Darda, the chief economist at MKM Partners, a nonpartisan brokerage and research firm, said Friday’s numbers suggest “a sharp slowdown,” not quite a recession.
The official determination will come from the National Bureau of Economic Research, an independent organization that tracks fluctuations in the business cycle. Luckily for Bush, the bureau works slowly — so slowly that there may be no official word until after he leaves office. The last recession ended in November 2001; the bureau declared it official in June 2003.