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The delicate art of economic cheerleading

Bush forum Tuesday seeks to reassure the public that he understands economy's woes.

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It's a dilemma all modern presidents have faced: There is little they can do to fine-tune the nation's economy, yet voters nevertheless hold them accountable for business cycle ups and downs.

As a result, at some point almost every White House looks for ways to appear concerned about public economic angst that aren't necessarily connected to any impending change in government fiscal policy.

Gerald Ford passed out buttons that said "WIN – Whip Inflation Now." Jimmy Carter wore cardigans and urged cutting national energy costs via turned-down thermometers. As president–elect, Bill Clinton went so far as to host a summit on the economy before his actual inauguration.

This week's short White House economic conference in Waco, Texas, is of a piece with these previous efforts, say experts. It's a way to cheerlead and appear thoughtful, to a point.

Will it jump-start the economy? That's unlikely. Does it contain an element of political posturing? Of course.

But that doesn't necessarily make it a waste of time.

Such efforts "do focus attention on things in a way that may not be readily apparent," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow in government studies at the Brookings Institution.

President Bush's forum on Tuesday was slated to involve some 250 people, ranging from Bush himself and Vice President Dick Cheney to a United Parcel Service driver and the heads of a number of small businesses.

Sharp criticism from Democrats that the preliminary guest list was skewed toward GOP contributors appears to have had at least some effect. The White House has gone out of its way to emphasize the Democratic credentials of some invitees, as well as dragging in such last-minute participants as Fannie Mae chief executive Franklin Raines, a budget director in the Clinton White House, and Internet executive Jerry Yang, a prominent Al Gore supporter in the 2000 election.

The panels are expected to cover economic recovery and job creation, corporate responsibility, small investors and retirement security, technology and innovation, and healthcare security.

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