Bush needs more training

March 30, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Much continues to be made of President Bush's trouble with grammar and vocabulary. Every time he says "he" instead of "him," mispronounces a word or bollixes its meaning, the language police are on his case.

Much more serious than how he says things is what he says to convey his view of the state of affairs, particularly these days regarding the economy. Ever since House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt charged that Mr. Bush's warnings that the country appeared to be heading for a recession were "a self-fulfilling prophecy," the president has been side-stepping.

In Michigan the other day, Mr. Bush said the American economy "is like a great athlete at the end of the first leg of a long, long race -- somewhat winded but fundamentally strong." The comment reflected a late awareness that a leader, particularly a leader newly in office, can't afford to be seen as a pessimist. Jimmy Carter learned that lesson too late with his talking down of the economy in his first and only presidential term.

Mr. Bush's first pessimistic comments about the economy came near the end of the 2000 campaign and were taken widely at the time as a political move to insulate him against the possibility of a slide; if it happened, he could then blame it on the preceding Democratic administration.

Then, after the election, as the stock market continued going south, he used his pessimistic outlook as a rationale for his proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut, saying it was required to combat the slide as well as being a justified "refund" to overtaxed Americans.

But with Mr. Gephardt and others continuing to charge his pessimism had been contributing to falling public confidence in the economy, Mr. Bush was quick to say that his concern was short term only and that his long-term confidence in the strength of the nation's economic engine was unshaken.

It's debatable just how much effect a president's remarks have on the stock market and the state of the economy. What isn't debatable is that when the national leader speaks, his words reverberate, counting for more than those of anyone else in public life (except, of course, Alan Greenspan).

That applies not only in economics but also in foreign policy, as Mr. Bush discovered when his hard-line comments regarding North Korea and Iraq sounded like he and Secretary of State Colin Powell were not reading from the same page. Observations sounding contradictory to stated administration policy make Mr. Bush more vulnerable to criticism that he's not sufficiently aware of what's going on around him.

Such doubts also undermine efforts to present himself as a leader who makes up his mind quickly and sticks with the decision he's made. That Mr. Bush has found himself accused of sending out mixed messages is all the more surprising because his new administration otherwise has shown itself to be extremely well-disciplined, as was his 2000 presidential campaign. Authority was narrowly held by a handful of aides who hold similar jobs in the administration.

It is, to be sure, very early to be drawing negative conclusions about Mr. Bush's performance, including the quality of his extemporaneous articulation of policy. It's possible to put too much emphasis on a president's ability to convey his views with clarity and sophistication, and without contradiction. The country has just finished eight years with a president who was a master at doing all these, but those talents were employed more than once in deception and falsehood.

One obvious solution for the new president would be to stay off the podium for a while and stop racing around the country trying to sell his tax cut. It seems from his heavy travel schedule as if he sees himself primarily as a salesman, operating in the manner of Willie Loman, on a smile and a shoeshine, leaving the heavy lifting at home to more experienced aides.

We already know he's an effective schmoozer. He demonstrated it in the late campaign and in his first weeks of romancing Democrats in Congress. With doubts continuing in many quarters about whether he's sufficiently prepared to be president, you'd think he'd stick around Washington more for on-the-job training.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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