WASHINGTON — SAM SKINNER, the new White House chief of staff, summed up his view of President Bush's precipitous slide in the polls the other day by saying that the administration has "a communications problem" and "a process problem." In other words, it's not what Bush has or hasn't done, but rather how it has been conveyed to the public.
Skinner, speaking of the stagnant economy, elaborated. "We have a growth package, significant, that we have proposed on the Hill," he said, "and the process has not allowed the president to get credit for that." Translation: Congress is to blame.
It's hard to argue with Skinner's contention that the White House has a communications problem, after that ludicrous Bush socks-buying excursion to a J. C. Penney store as a demonstration of the president's concern for the economic squeeze gripping the average American.
Since then, the White House image-shapers have been working overtime in much the same vein to convey the same message. Bush has made a stop at a Chicago burger joint and has had lunch in a chicken-fried steak joint in Texas with some construction workers after signing the new transportation bill, sent to him by that supposedly obstructionist Congress, on a highway site.
The stops were standard fare in the era of the media event, even if the featured player did his best to botch them. In the blue-collar cafe in Texas, Bush never brought up the subject of the economy and when he was asked whether he was going to pick up the lunch tab of $48.10, after joking about whether he could afford it "in these times of austerity," he pulled a roll of $20-bills out of his pocket and exclaimed: "I'm loaded!" So much for empathy with the strapped middle class.
The "communications problem" goes deeper. It's difficult to convey that the president recognizes the depth of the economic plight of millions of Americans when for months he says, as he did, that there isn't a recession and hence no special remedial action is required, only to come around to acknowledging it much later. And it's hard to convey a sense of urgency when he tells the American people in November that he will have an answer in his State of the Union message in January.
Even now, as the 1992 Democratic presidential candidates are clobbering Bush as insensitive to the concerns of the middle class, the administration floats a leak about a possible one-time tax rebate of $200 or $300 that serves chiefly to make conservative Republicans in Congress wonder whether he's lost his marbles. A Treasury aide, according to the Wall Street Journal, now says the rebate "is not on the table at this point," while White House braintrusters thrash about to come up with something that will convince the voters that Bush has some notion of what to do.
Meanwhile, the president continues to get advice that there isn't much he can do in the short term and that it's best just to sit tight. But that's hard to get away with when the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, tells the House Ways and Means Committee that the economy "clearly has faltered" and that a "quick fix" increasing the federal deficit -- which is what the tax rebate would be -- would be poison.
When the president met at the White House Thursday with business leaders to discuss his impending Asian trip, he was asked about the
jolting decision by General Motors that it will close 21 factories in the United States and Canada in the next three years, eliminating 74,000 jobs. He might have been expected to commiserate with the affected workers, but instead he referred questions to GM Chairman Robert Stempel, who was attending the meeting.
From all this it's undeniable that President Bush does have a communications problem. But his real problem is that he doesn't have an economic solution to communicate, and no amount of gimmickry dreamed up by his image-makers to convey his concern can mask that fact.
In 1980, Bush accurately described Ronald Reagan's hare-brained notion that you could cut taxes by one-third, sharply increase military spending and still balance the budget as "voodoo economics." But once on the Reagan team he embraced Reaganomics as his own, and now he along with the country is reaping the consequences.