Washington -- THE HOOT of the holiday weekend was the story about President Bush going shopping at a J.C. Penney store in Frederick, Md. "It's easier to shop out in the country for us than it is downtown," said Bush with a straight face.
The president bought some tennis socks for himself and a sweat suit for one of his grandchildren. Mrs. Bush bought several items. We were terribly relieved that they were able to do their Christmas shopping so close to Camp David and could avoid the congestion downtown. And there isn't any J.C. Penney store in downtown Washington anyway; the Bushes would have had to look for a K-Mart or maybe a Sears, which we assume is where they go when they can't find a Penney's.
This was the classic media event -- an exercise intended solely to send a political message that bore no relationship to reality. In case anyone was dim enough to miss it, the lesson was that the Bushes have enough confidence in the economy to go Christmas shopping and we should all do the same.
The true message, however, is that President Bush is totally out of touch with the real world if he believes that media events can be a substitute for seriously confronting the recession that, opinion polls show, has scared the socks off Amerian consumers. Two-thirds of the voters believe the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than heading "in the right direction." And increasingly they blame Bush.
It is not surprising that the White House thinks such stunts are going to help rub some of the tarnish off Bush's image. After all, he was elected three years ago on the basis of symbols -- Willie Horton and the American flag -- and sloganeering -- "I'm going to be the education president" -- rather than anything approaching a domestic program. So now there is much talk here of "firing up Air Force One" and sending Bush around the country to get his picture taken with the right backdrops.
But media events work only in the absence of real concerns in the electorate. And they work only if the opposition allows a politician to get away with using them, as Michael Dukakis did in 1988. But these days there is pervasive concern about the economy and, finally, Democrats willing to trash Bush because he clearly has no idea what to do about it.
The problem for Bush is that he has never had any interest in such mundane matters. We are suddenly asking him, at the age of 67, to learn some new tricks. It may have been charming to hear him poking fun at "the vision thing" -- meaning his own lack of vision -- when things were going so swimmingly in 1989 and early 1990. But now a president with a little economic vision doesn't sound like such a nerd after all.
In political terms, the danger to the president is that the shallowness of his political thinking is being exposed and underlined by the stumbling uncertainty of his behavior in dealing with the economy. He switched positions either two or three times, depending on what you consider a flip-flop, last week on the question of whether and how enthusiastically he supported a Republican "growth package" of tax cuts and incentives.
Considering the way he kicked that one around, it is no surprise that Bush and the political wise men in the White House decided they needed a distraction. I got a boffo idea, Manny, why don't we take him to J.C. Penney's to buy some sweat socks? We can make all the networks.
No one who understands even a little about the complexity of the current economic distress expects the president -- or, for that matter, any of his rivals in Congress and the Democratic Party -- to find an easy, overnight solution. In fact, experts in both parties seem agreed that there are no quick-fix steps that could send the gross national product soaring in the next quarter.
But Americans are entitled to expect their political leaders to recognize the dimensions of the economic problems and to do their best in devising policies that eventually will solve them and perhaps prevent a repetition. It is a serious responsibility. It cannot be met by going to J.C. Penney for the cameras. And the voters are smart enough to know that, even if the White house is not.