WHETHER motivated by the presidential campaign or not, the "truth telling" this week by the White House about the nation's economic travail is much needed, and smart strategy for George Bush. "The people of this country know the economoy is in trouble and it doesn't make any sense to play games," said President Bush's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater.That's a sudden shift in approach. We are glad any game-playing, or intention to play games, is over. Now the White House is more in sync with headlines about job cutbacks, including at corporations such as IBM and General Motors, and with the admission by Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan that economic recovery is facing "50-mile-an-hour head winds." A friend in St. Louis tells us that people in Missouri are being urged by local leaders to buy Christmas presents almost as if that would save the state . The White House shift is orchestrated by new chief of staff Samuel Skinner - undercutting his predecessor, John Sununu, who advocated a modified "what-me-worry?" approach to the recession even as Bush's approval rating plummeted. The image of a president facing problems rather than denying them should encourage the stock market. Now Bush must find policies to match his image and rhetoric. Ultimately, he must tackle the monstrous budget deficit. Bush is taking the economy seriously just in time. To run a reelection campaign on the fiction of economic recovery would leave the way wide open for even a weak opponent to capture what may be the central campaign issue. For the president to switch messages in mid-campaign would be disastrous. The departure of John Sununu and a reported scaling back of federal budget director Richard Darman's influence will give Bush cover to shape new policies. But with the New Hampshire primary on the horizon, time is short.