The President's Slip Is Showing


By Richard S. Dunham "Well, it's an unimaginable honor to be the President during the Fourth of July of this country. It means what these words say, for starters. The great inalienable rights of our country. We're blessed with such values in America. And I -- it's -- I'm a proud man to be the nation based upon such wonderful values." -- President Bush, after visiting the Jefferson Memorial on July 3.

Well, Thomas Jefferson he ain't. The Great Communicator he ain't. Heck, the President ain't even his father, George Herbert Walker Bush, a master at mangling syntax himself.

Ever since George W. Bush became President, many Americans have considered his communication gaffes a refreshing change from the superslick Bill Clinton. The new President has cleverly made light of his own communications deficiencies. Speaking at Yale University's commencement, he told the Ivy League grads that everything he learned about the English language he had learned at his alma mater. Rim shot, please!

BAD NEWS. It's always smart for a President to engage in a bit of self-deprecating humor. Trouble is, when Americans stop laughing with a politician and start laughing at him, it's bad, bad news. Just ask Ted Kennedy, Dan Quayle, Strom Thurmond, and a bunch of other political punch lines.

Now is the time that George W. Bush desperately needs to communicate better. To start with, he needs to refine "the vision thing," to borrow a phrase from his dad. When the Republicans lost the Senate in mid-session, Bush lost control of the policy agenda. That means he has to fight Democrats on their own turf -- not on his own terms. And with Presidential poll numbers dipping, more and more Republicans are beginning to declare political independence from the man in the White House. It's important for Bush -- who has already chalked up major policy triumphs on tax cuts and education -- to keep things under control.

Many in the Pundit Elite have declared that Bush is in trouble because his policies are too far right for the average American. That's not quite correct. While many independents and moderates are worried by Bush's rightward drift, by 63% to 34%, most Americans still believe Bush is "moderate, not extreme," according to a survey conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.

Still, voters overwhelmingly favor the Democratic approach over Bush's on major issues including energy, the environment, managed care and patients' rights, and a prescription-drug benefit for seniors. What we have here, in the words from that old Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke, is a failure to communicate.

SHIELDING HIM. Bush has been hurt more by his own shortcomings as a communicator than his Administration's communications strategy, flawed as it is. Atop the list, this ex-C student needs to start interacting with average people more often. Bill Clinton -- a real policy wonk -- nonetheless was a master of the town meeting. He empathized with people -- sometimes to excess, but he made his point.

Bush's advisers seem to want to protect him from himself. His public events are often carefully scripted, and they resemble campaign rallies rather than interactive Presidential events. Here's some free advice to the chief: Answer questions from the public. Bush can be very charming and articulate during informal give-and-take. His advisers should relax and give it a shot.

The President also has dodged detailed questioning from the press corps. Six months into his Presidency, he has yet to hold a traditional press conference in the White House East Room, open to all reporters. Instead, he chooses to take a few questions from a small group of scribes who travel everywhere with him. These insular question-and-answer sessions produce softball questions, as the President chortled to a fellow head of state during his recent European visit. Like it isn't transparent, Mr. President? Here's some more advice: Hold real press conferences. Show the press that you're capable of answering the tough questions.

Bush also has eschewed the time-tested Oval Office address to the nation. President Reagan was a master of using his prime-time performances to shift public opinion on controversial issues. The first President Bush effectively used Oval Office speeches to rally the nation behind his war on Iraq. The younger Bush might change the political dynamic on energy and health care by taking his case directly to the people via TV. So, I suggest, Mr. President, that you try the bully pulpit of the Media Age. You'll probably like it.

ARSENIC & RED FACE. The White House communications team hasn't been successful in framing a single major issue other than tax cuts. The clunky response to Bill Clinton's last-second regulatory frenzy resulted in a widespread public perception that the new President was insensitive to high levels of arsenic in drinking water. The perception is flawed, but that's because the White House fell into the Democrats' trap.

Similarly, the Administration has done a wretched job articulating its position on the patients' bill of rights. White House spinmeisters have concentrated their fire on trial lawyers who, they claim, would game the system. Sure, that's red meat for dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. But what's missing here? Any empathy for the 90% of Americans who believe that managed-care providers are more concerned with profits than patients. Bush must convince people that, even if he doesn't "feel your pain," he at least is aware of their concerns -- and cares about them.

Framing the debate as a titanic battle between lawyers and insurance companies is both a false choice and a silly one. My last bit of advice: Visit some hospitals. Talk to managed-care patients. Hear their complaints. Tell Americans you've gotten the message and you want to seek a reasonable compromise that solves the system's serious problems without enriching ambulance-chasing attorneys.

If Bush doesn't improve his communications strategy soon, he's going to regret it. A public that doesn't take his Presidency seriously anymore could preclude a second term. The good news for Bush is, it isn't too late to get a new message. And it has to be more heartfelt and sophisticated than "I care." Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online


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