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Bush Problem: Lack of Marketing or Message?

THE Bush White House is struggling mightily these days to convey a sense of direction and purpose through the din over its dithering and disarray.Some of the president's most influential advisers see their problem as a failure of communication. On Friday, at a Monitor breakfast for reporters, a self-effacing Richard Darman - the White House budget director and a leading economic adviser to President Bush - pulled a 28-item "growth agenda" from his jacket pocket. From a capital-gains tax cut to research-and-development tax incentives, it was more laundry list than riveting slogan. Mr. Darman lamented, confiding: "This is not good marketing." "We live in a world in which the benefit goes to those who are capable of gross simplification in attractive ways," he said. Whether the White House suffers from a marketing problem, as Darman suggests, or a deeper lack of direction, as Democrats daily allege, the message is muddled. Even in easier times, the domestic program of the Bush administration is noted for moving in cautious increments. To its advocates, the Bush agenda consists of filing the rough edges off the Reagan agenda. But in troubled times, people want action. Without a persuasive direction, the White House is off balance and defensive. Bad news and missteps reverberate through the amplifier of the White House press corps, observes Brookings Institution press and politics analyst Stephen Hess. So reversals and policy shifts in the White House lead to a pattern of flustered reaction that only pushes the president and his staff further off balance: Every muddled message creates more pressure for the White House to demonstrate that everything is under control. The latest example came last week, when White House counsel C. Boyden Gray circulated his draft of a signing statement for the president for the new civil rights bill. The statement directed the termination of most federal affirmative action and set-aside programs. Bush had such language deleted, but the incident further confused the question of what the president's principles are and which political audiences he seeks to please. This follows a string of mixed signals that began with Republican Dick Thornburgh's lost Senate election in Pennsylvania, a shot across the bow of the Bush administration. Mr. Bush postponed an important trip to Asia just as the polls closed. The president's critics sensed panic, vulnerability. Then came his sudden call for lower credit-card interest rates, the Senate's almost-immediate passage of an interest-rate-capping bill, and a 120-point stock market plunge - all within three days. Bush's suggestion on rates seemed to come from nowhere, a desperate grab at an initiative that ignored the fragile solvency of the banking system. Bush's style is less credible when he is on the defensive, as well. Many observers describe him as "whiny" when he discusses his critics. In recent weeks, as his popularity drops in the polls, he has gone on the attack, lambasting Congress for not passing his legislation. "I don't think it's his natural vocabulary," says Kathleen Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on political rhetoric. "He appears angry, not as precise in control of his syntax, not as credible." Unlike former President Reagan, who remained genial and reassuring during the 1982 recession, Bush seems unable to dismiss criticism with good-natured humor. "He's missing part of the full range of responses" that most politicians develop, she says. The White House funk exerts a heavy influence on staff and Cabinet factions. Much of the flak has focused on chief of staff John Sununu, who manages the White House with a weighty and much-resented hand - even in happier times. A steady parade of senior administration officials have been appearing in press reports pointing blame at Mr. Sununu. Some believe that the problem for the White House is that the economy is forcing it into a campaign stance sooner than planned. "They've been so high for so long," says Mr. Hess of Brookings, "now that thing aren't going well, they're having trouble adjusting. But, he adds: "I think they will." Even if the president is getting sound advice to stay out of the economy's way, Hess says, he still needs a "symbolic message" that the public finds persuasive. House minority whip Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, a strong critic of the president last year when he raised taxes, now agrees with Darman that the White House problem is one of packaging. "This is the thing that strikes me as so frustrating," Mr. Gingrich explained at a Monitor breakfast Thursday. "If you were to go through step by step what George Bush has asked for over the last three years, there is a lot of very solid stuff but all of it uncoordinated.... They don't organize it in a manner which becomes a coherent whole. It's a series of pieces."

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