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From Bush's firings, a more unified voice

Sending O'Neill and Lindsey on their way, the White House signals that economy is a top priority.

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Perhaps those most sorry to see Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill depart will be journalists. He could make news merely by opening his mouth and speaking his mind - as when he sent Brazil's currency plummeting by suggesting new foreign aid might wind up in Swiss bank accounts. He also made it clear that he didn't think a new economic-stimulus package was necessary, contradicting administration policy.

For a White House famously adept at staying "on message," even when policy disputes bubble beneath the surface, this wouldn't do. The reaction on Wall Street to Mr. O'Neill's forced resignation on Friday was: What took so long?

But for President Bush - who, like his father, is known for loyalty, and is said to like O'Neill personally - the timing makes sense.

Historically, administrations clean house at the midterm. Two years remain before Bush faces voters again, and he can afford to call attention to his administration's problems in handling the economy. By also firing the director of his National Economic Council, Lawrence Lindsey, who's been faulted as an ineffective communicator, Bush can roll out a new economic-message team - and, it is hoped, appear as proactive on the economy as he is on foreign policy.

History weighs heavily on this White House as it tries to avoid the fate of Bush's father, who lost his reelection bid when he seemed out of touch on the economy.

"Presidents have a very hard time firing people. As politicians, they're used to making people happy," says Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "But there are only two types of issues presidents are defeated on, national security and the economy. Bush didn't have an appropriate, powerful, respected spokesman on the economy."


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