A Rough Six Weeks Lead to the Times That Try Bush’s Soul

Posted February 27, 2004 at 4:19pm

Every day, the news gets worse and worse for President Bush.

First it was job losses, a growing deficit and the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Now gasoline shortages presage higher prices and consumer complaints, and spiking steel and copper prices put pressure on business profits. Lower profits aren’t likely to lead to job growth. Even consumer confidence plunged last month. [IMGCAP(1)]

With Americans increasingly worried about the economy, Bush’s re-election prospects look more and more uncertain.

That doesn’t mean that Teresa Heinz Kerry should start measuring the White House windows for new designer drapes, but it does mean that circumstances and events still to come will determine whether the president will win a second term, or whether he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps.

The only thing that is certain is that Bush won’t win re-election unless the economy turns sharply to his favor and Americans see a future that is better than the past. That doesn’t mean that he will have to replace all of the jobs lost during the past four years, but he will need to show some real movement in the right direction.

The president has had a horrendous six weeks. Some of it isn’t his own doing.

With the media’s focus on the Democratic race, and with the Democratic presidential hopefuls tripping over themselves to beat up on Bush, the president has been a punching bag, and it isn’t surprising that his standing in public opinion polls has slipped.

In addition, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s statement raising the possibility of changes to Social Security, and San Francisco’s decision to issue marriage licenses to gays have created a buzz the White House undoubtedly would rather not have to deal with at this point.

But while some of the president’s wounds are by his own hand, others have been inflicted by his supposed allies.

The president’s secretary of Education, who called the National Education Association a “terrorist organization,” and his chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, who seemed unconcerned about the loss of jobs to other countries and whose organization issued a screwy prediction on job creation, recently showed that they are unusually inept when it comes to politics and public relations.

In two recent public events, one before a joint session of Congress and one on “Meet the Press,” the president reminded us why he is not known as “the Great Communicator.” I doubt that Bush hurt himself much with an utterly forgettable State of the Union address and in his interview with Tim Russert, but he certainly didn’t help his cause.

In urging major new space exploration just when his deficit-ridden budget was being presented, the president seemed clueless about the public’s priorities.

But the president’s greatest weakness remains the economy, particularly jobs. That’s the area that will determine whether he will become a two-term commander in chief.

By traditional standards, the economy isn’t in bad shape. Yes, the president will face reelection having presided over a net loss of jobs since he entered office, and the loss of manufacturing jobs has drawn a lot of attention.

But the misery index — a combination of the unemployment rate, the inflation rate and interest rates — doesn’t show much misery. The economy is growing at 4 percent or more, and some key sectors remain strong.

While the economy has clearly started to rally, many Americans seem to have a very different impression. Polling shows that many believe the economy is a disaster and that it is headed downhill.

Consumer confidence, as measured by the Conference Board, plunged in February, and a recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found 32 percent of respondents saying that the economy was poor, while another 39 percent said that it was fair. Just 28 percent called the economy good or excellent.

Even more worrisome for the White House, a plurality of Americans, 41 percent, say that the economy is getting worse for them and for their families.

Is this just a public relations problem for the president? Yes — and no. Yes, it is a public relations problem, but it won’t be solved with a public relations solution. If Commerce Secretary Don Evans or Treasury Secretary John Snow start talking about a rebound, some voters will figure the administration has lost its collective mind or don’t know what is really happening outside the Beltway.

The administration needs a set of upbeat economic numbers over the next six months to transform public sentiment. Adding 150,000 jobs a month probably would be a start, but the White House needs more than one or two bits of data. It needs a series of upbeat reports and projections. And another uptick in the stock market wouldn’t hurt.

The president’s Democratic adversary is going to have a record to defend, and that will give the Bush campaign an opportunity to shift the public’s focus away from Bush’s shortcomings and toward the Democratic nominee’s vulnerabilities.

The White House has plenty of time to re-orient the presidential race, which is why current poll numbers don’t have much predictive values. But in early November, Bush can’t afford voters to believe that the economy is in poor shape and getting worse.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.