Every once in a while the subject of the 8.6 million Americans desperately looking for jobs is raised by reporters at White House briefings.

There is usually an awkward moment of silence as the briefer strains to remember the exact words that will convey the mood of the administration on this issue it would prefer not to address.The White House line is that the recession is coming to an end, although it's too soon to predict exactly when. Soothingly, officials say it will all come out all right in the end. Just trust them.

The economy will get back on track, they say. If only Congress would cut the capital gains tax, as President Bush wants but as the legislators will never do, jobs would be created by richer businesses and America's competitive edge would be sharper.

But as American taxpayers willingly prepare to have their tax dollars - "millions and millions," according to a White House spokesman - spent for blankets and food for starving, freezing Kurds, many also are asking what the administration is doing about the domestic economy.

Every major U.S. city is having problems feeding and sheltering homeless or unemployed men, women and children.

Bush's game plan (there's always a game plan, whether it's for war, Congress or the economy) is to create a massive trading bloc "from the Yukon to the Yucatan," in Ronald Reagan's term adopted by Bush.

His plan for free trade from Canada to Mexico, Bush told the business executives, is to let "people like you do what you do best - create jobs, create new opportunities, create wealth."

The questions of U.S. businesses building plants abroad for cheap labor and of countries like Mexico that pollute the environment to produce cheap goods have not been hashed out yet. Bush says it's a matter of "good faith" - he wants Congress to let his people iron out the details and then vote his trade agreement up or down.

Unless free trade is initiated in this hemisphere, Bush says, "we will surrender our chance the shape the emerging world economy."

Without free trade, he says, the protectionist warfare "that helped produce the Great Depression" may be set off again.

Offering business leaders a bribe if they help him get Congress to go along with his free-trade plan, Bush said he will help business fight government "over regulation." Bush says regulations cost the economy "at least $185 billion" a year, or $1,700 per taxpayer.

But in fact he has no plans to scrap those regulations. Most of them are now entrenched in law, essential to the way American businesses operate, and they protect businesses just as they protect the health, safety and welfare of consumers.

Far more important than Bush's mixed-up, still-undefined policy toward Iraq after the war, what he does about the U.S. economy will decide whether the 21st century also is an American century or becomes the Euro-century.

At least 8.6 million Americans think he's got an urgent job on his hands.