President Bush called in some of his top White House advisers last week to find out why his job-approval numbers on pocketbook issues remain weak when the country’s economic performance is so strong.
After a closed-door meeting at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, the president said, “The economy of the United States is strong and the foundation for sustained growth is in place,” but added that additional economic measures are needed — from permanent tax cuts to medical-liability reform.
Former administration advisers say that ever-higher gas prices, now at an average $2.48 a gallon for regular, are a key reason for Mr. Bush’s sinking polls on the economy. But there is also general agreement that the White House has not done a good job of promoting the U.S. economy’s solid performance over the past two years, according to outside advisers who have helped the White House formulate its economic agenda.
“This administration has never done a particularly good job in really driving home its accomplishments. What they tend to do is accomplish something, check it off the list and move on to the next problem,” said an outside business adviser who has sat in on numerous White House strategy sessions.
“As a result, sometimes they don’t get their message out as effectively as they could, and by not defining reality, they let others define it for them,” he said.
Thus, while the economy has been turning in solid gains in jobs, exports, factory orders and home sales, Mr. Bush’s job-approval numbers have been sinking into the low- to mid-40s. What has come out of White House strategy meetings, another adviser said, is “the belated realization that they need to do a better PR job, and they are working very aggressively to try to tell the story of a really robust economy.”
But other Republican strategists say the cause of Mr. Bush’s problem has more to do with the war in Iraq, record-high gasoline prices, mixed messages from the White House and a pessimist spin on the economy in the press.
“There is a lot of anxiety back where people live as a result of gas prices that injects into their life in real terms on a daily basis, and that makes people nervous,” said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
Businesses reported adding 207,000 jobs to the employment rolls last month, pushing job growth to more than 3.5 million in the past two years. Factory orders have been rising, business earnings have been hitting new records, inflation is modest when energy isn’t counted, and the economy is growing at an annual rate of 3.4 percent, yielding higher tax revenues that have cut the budget deficit by nearly $100 billion.
Brian Wesbury, a Republican economic adviser based in Chicago, says much of Mr. Bush’s problem on the economy has to do with press.
“There’s this pall of pessimism about the economy in the press coverage and a negative spin on everything,” he said. “If it’s bad, it’s going to get worse. If it’s good, it’s going to get bad.”