WASHINGTON. — Washington -- There should be no mystery as to why President Bush's approval rating is falling precipitously. The American people have simply concluded that the president fed them snake oil, waiting 17 months before he would allow his press secretary Marlin Fitzwater to let the ''R'' word ''recession'' roll off his cankered tongue.
At the president's behest, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan fed us vaults full of double-talk before saying flatly that the economic recovery ''has faltered'' and ''the recession is still in full swing.'' He acknowledged that this powerful economic downturn is driven by massive corporate, personal and national debt.
Even as the White House and the Fed were admitting that the economic mess is as bad as jobless, homeless, foodless Americans knew it was half a year ago, Mr. Bush was playing another kind of shell game.
He was in Texas pretending that a just-passed transportation will ''produce or sustain 600,000 jobs and soon ease the miseries of families wrecked by unemployment.''
Mr. Bush wants us to believe a $300 rebate to each taxpayer and a capital gains tax will constitute a panacea for what may be the most devastating economic mess since World War II.
This game was being played out near one of the 21 plants that General Motors is expected to close as the once-kingpin automaker eliminates 74,000 jobs over the next three years.
Even as GM was giving us big-time bad news for white collar and factory workers, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities here was telling us that most states have ripped away the safety net for the poor, making the greatest slashes in welfare support in more than a decade.
We have gone for years in which Mr. Bush refused to admit we had a problem, so he obviously could not propose a solution.
Mr. Bush didn't have to wait until the eve of Christmas to tell Americans the truth. On Dec. 6 he could simply have read to Americans some of these lines from the monthly report on the ''Employment Situation'' released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
''Nonfarm payroll employment showed a seasonally adjusted decline of about 240,000 in November, erasing the job gains that had occurred in recent months.''
''The number of construction jobs fell by 95,000 . . . Employment in manufacturing edged down for the third month in a row.''
''Employment in retail trade fell by 110,000 . . . Over the past 16 months, the number of wholesale trade jobs has declined by nearly 200,000.''
Mr. Bush could have said that from October to November, another 455,000 people had fallen out of the job force, and that well over a million workers were so ''discouraged'' that they weren't even looking for employment.
The grimmer truth is that the blindest man is one who refuses to see. Mr. Bush could have seen the grip of a terrible recession if he had read a Bureau of Labor Statistics report a year ago. But one of the rules of American politics is that presidents are not supposed to volunteer any bad news that might damage their chances for re-election.
Some argue that if a president told the people the truth it would only destroy consumer confidence and feed the doubts that could turn a recession into a depression.
Losing your job is a traumatic reality that presidential silence or stonewalling cannot erase. The evidence is that our people always prefer the truth. They value a leader who says frankly:
''These are your choices, none of them pleasant. This is the course I suggest. It requires pain, including new taxes. I mean Americans declaring a willingness to pay for the things they love. In my view it is the only program that can bring America back to prosperity.''
Either Mr. Bush or one of his challengers in the 1992 elections is going to deliver that message. We'll find out whether most voters are too spoiled, pampered, selfish, insecure to embrace it.
Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.