Washington -- PRESIDENT BUSH is displaying remarkable political ineptitude in his handling of the growing national dismay over the condition of the economy. His clumsiness has begun to cause ruptures in his base that are becoming increasingly obvious and unsettling to other Republicans looking ahead to the 1992 elections.
Political professionals in both parties say the president's most serious blunder has been his failure to project an image of a national leader who understands the urgency of the economic pressures on ordinary voters. Instead, he has continued to insist that things are not as bad as they seem.
Perhaps the single most conspicuous gaffe was Bush's statement that he would offer a series of proposals to deal with the economic distress in his next State of the Union address. Since that is more than two months in the future, it seemed to suggest a remarkably deliberate pace in dealing with a situation many Americans, including eight million unemployed, consider immediate and critical.
The whole notion that there is some magic in a State of the Union speech is laughable. That annual address is a much-loved political ritual here in the capital. But it is also the kind of ceremonial politics voters may see as further evidence of the distance between their lives and those of the incumbent politicians they increasingly disparage. Indeed, it would not be surprising if many voters saw the State of the Union as little more than an annual occasion when a presidential speech pre-empts their prime time television programming.
Bush also shot himself in the foot when he suggested a couple of weeks ago that this was a good time to buy a house. For most Americans, the equity in their homes is their principal asset, and they have been watching their net worth decline rapidly in the past two years. Now they hear from the president what sounds like a suggestion that buyers take advantage of their distress. Coming on the heels of Bush's recalcitrance in approving an extension of unemployment benefits, the statement did not project a picture of a president sensitive to the concerns of ordinary people.
The picture of Bush at a loss for an economic policy was further heightened when he seemed to be suggesting that a ceiling on credit card interest rates might be a good idea. When the Senate quickly seized on the gimmick offered by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York, a Republican in a peck of trouble for re-election next year, the White House quickly backed away after the stock market tumbled. That was not a reassuring episode either.
The president and his advisers seem to think this is all a public relations problem. Bush told some reporters the other day, "I think I've got to do better making clear what the message is." But the fact seems to be that the White House itself has to decide what the policy should be before worrying about the how to get the word out.
One element of the administration strategy, predictably enough, to blame the Democratic Congress. Vice President Dan Quayle has been saying that the economic distress should be known as "George Mitchell's recession." But the idea that the Senate leader rather than the White House will be blamed is fanciful.
The White House's problems are being compounded by critics within his own party -- and one within his own cabinet, Housing Secretary Jack Kemp -- who are pressing for what they call "a growth package." This means a series of proposals, the principal one being a reduction in the capital gains tax rate, that would lead investors to new enterprises that, in turn, would produce more jobs.
The dirty little secret, however, is that there is very little any president can do to effect a quick fix of the economy, as Bush's economic advisers are well aware. The most a president can do is to take palliative short-term measures, although the federal deficit problem is so severe Bush is even limited in that area.
But sound politics and sound policy do not always go hand in hand. And where President Bush has failed has been in `f demonstrating to those who are feeling the recession first-hand that he truly understands their distress and is willing to act with force and alacrity. Promising a speech at the end of January is, as Lyndon Johnson might have put it, a dog that just won't hunt.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are members of The Evening Sun staff.