- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

Once again, President Bush’s popularity has gone down, this time to near its previous bottom. His friends and supporters are dismayed, especially since the economic and other news is not that bad. It is certainly not as bad as it has been, or as it might be.

The intensity and duration of this unpopularity is not unique. Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton aroused similar emotions. Only Nixon did not recover from this after his presidency (although his foreign policy skill has been vindicated).

What did Presidents Truman, Reagan and Clinton have in common? They were good communicators, and they had an ear for what the American public thought and felt (although they often went against what political pundits told them was what Americans thought and felt). The worst thing an American politician can have is a tin ear.

This is not about public policy. I have defended Mr. Bush’s policies in the Middle East and his long-term vision, and I continue to do so. His attempts to reform Social Security and create health-savings accounts are on the right track.

Although I think his proposals so far are not enough, he is right to try to reform education and health care. I applaud his new efforts to reduce American dependency on foreign oil imports, and in insisting on drastic U.N. reform

What is not commendable is a pattern of personal unwillingness to engage and include the American public in building support for his own policies.

There are some obvious reasons for this. Mr. Bush, who is quite capable of being charming, likeable and effective to small, friendly audiences, apparently does not enjoy his role as communicator in chief to the nation, a role that is as much part of the job as commander in chief of the armed forces. This role is not specified in the Constitution, but it has been a necessary part of the job since the first president, George Washington.

Much of the national media opposes Mr. Bush, and makes no secret of it. Many of his loudest critics make no effort to evaluate what he says and does fairly. Those in the entertainment industry, who are often badly informed, have relentlessly made fun of him. Sometimes satire was deserved, and no one denies the inherent role of the media to be critical. But there has been a venom in the media/cultural left for Mr. Bush, who has apparently long mistrusted the media, and from his 2000 campaign on has kept it at arm’s length. His first press secretary, Ari Fleischer, was skillful, but his assignment was not to be forthcoming. His current press secretary, Scott McLellan, is neither skillful nor forthcoming. It is a formula for a communication disaster.

The latest flap is over a deal to allow an Arab-owned company to manage six American ports. This is a large company which is already managing several world ports, and doing it well. They submitted the best bid. The fact that this company is owned by an Arab ally raises a question of political sensitivity to our allies and to the Arab world at large. But it is a tin ear that does not realize how this would be received by not only opponents and the media, but also by supporters and the public at large. This is the same political ear that nominated Harriet Myers for the supreme court and avoided going to New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina.

This suggests that the kind of advice the president received during his first term is no longer reaching him in his second. Some explain that this is because Mr. Bush’s penchant to replace outgoing cabinet and sub-cabinet officers, and his personal staff, with their juniors is a compulsive resistance to counsel from outside. (This should not be confused with the president’s stubborn adherence to his foreign and domestic policy vision and ideas, which remain valid and laudable.)

This is about implementation, strategy and communication, which are the other half of the executive equation. As the first U.S. president with an M.B.A., Mr. Bush is inexcusably performing only half the job when he places loyalty and self-imposed isolation above good management.

Even more egregious is the president’s timing for this executive muddle. The mid-term elections will soon enter their final campaign months, and the president risks hitherto safe margins of control of both houses of Congress. Where is Karl Rove? A contrarian political trend which began only a few months ago, giving the Republican Party unexpected opportunities in national races, e.g., in Maryland, New Jersey, Minnesota, Ohio, Washington and elsewhere, would evaporate if a tidal wave against the administration were to develop.

It’s one thing to be loyal, and another matter to be loyal to those who do not appear to be really up to the job.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.

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