Ownership society, anyone?

Posted: May 17, 2004 12:00 AM

 John Kerry's hope of riding to the presidency by denouncing the "jobless recovery" are fading as the Bureau of Labor Statistics' employers' survey results come in: 288,000 jobs in April, on top of a revised 337,000 for March and an 867,000 total for the first four months of this year.
If job creation continues at the pace of March and April, there will be a net gain in jobs during Bush's term. Opinion on the economy hasn't turned around yet, as voters focus on horrifying pictures from Iraq. But Kerry has already switched his emphasis from low job creation to other economic woes. So it's possible that economic issues may work for Bush. But they could help his campaign much more, and provide a basis for second-term governance, if he frames economic issues a different way.

 So far, Bush has followed Kerry in focusing on employment and jobs. But as time goes on and the economy changes, the important economic issue increasingly is not short-term income but long-term wealth.

 We are a long way from the 1930s, when Americans faced something like 25 percent unemployment in the Great Depression. Then, and for decades after, most people lived off their cash income -- they had little in savings, no investments and no way of tapping any increase in the value of their houses. Voters who remembered how one year's decline in income in the 1930s led to personal economic disaster were exquisitely sensitive to any such decline for years after. But by 2002, only 8 percent of voters had personal memories of the 1930s. That number is not going to go up in 2004.

 Most voters today have been living with a different economy, one in which bounteous job growth has been the norm and in which credit cards can tide you over temporary job loss. It is an economy in which the ordinary citizen over the course of a lifetime accumulates significant wealth, well into six figures today for 55- to 65-year-olds, mostly in the form of residential real estate and financial investments. It is wealth they can tap by credit card borrowing and mortgage refinancing.

 In the 1940s and 1950s, the FHA and VA home mortgage guarantee programs helped convert America from a nation of renters to a nation of homeowners. In the 1980s and 1990s, 401(k) plans and similar tax-free vehicles have helped convert America from a nation of noninvestors to a nation of investors. In 2002, about 60 percent of Americans were investors. And many of the young, who have not yet accumulated any net worth, expect to be, and will.

 Government programs helped most Americans accumulate wealth in the form of real estate. For today's economy, George W. Bush has proposed government programs that would help most Americans accumulate more wealth in the form of financial investments. The most important of these is inclusion of personal retirement accounts in Social Security, which Bush campaigned on in 2000 but has not pushed in Congress. They also include deferred savings plans in his budget this year, programs to increase homeownership and expansion of health savings accounts, a form of which were included in the 2003 Medicare bill. On occasion, Bush has referred to them together as programs designed to create an "ownership society," to help people accumulate wealth and economic independence.

 But he hasn't sounded that theme much lately. He missed occasions like his 2004 State of the Union Address and other speeches on economic themes. Word is that the White House has had trouble making the numbers for these programs add up.

 Whatever the case, Bush risks missing the chance to be as consequential a domestic president in a second term as he has been a foreign-policy president in his first. Unless he campaigns hard for personal retirement accounts in Social Security, he will not have the political capital to get Congress to pass them in 2005 or 2006.

 Back in 1999, Bill Clinton talked about an investment component in Social Security, and leading Democrats like Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bob Kerrey were in favor. Now, almost all congressional Democrats are against, so the votes will have to come almost entirely from Republicans, many of whom are now queasy about the idea. They won't vote yes unless Bush makes his case for the ownership society in his campaign.

 Once again, as in 1999, we may miss a chance for government to help ordinary Americans accumulate wealth -- a chance that might not come again for many years.