Finding the right man

Bruce Bartlett

4/4/2006 12:04:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett

According to press reports, the first job for Josh Bolten, the new White House chief of staff, will be to find a new treasury secretary. President Bush believes that he has not gotten enough credit for the good economy and that Treasury Secretary John Snow has not done enough to make sure he gets that credit.

All I can say is that if Snow is not enough of a cheerleader on the economy, then no one is. In my view, he has allowed the federal government's second-ranking department to be downgraded into little more than a PR shop. Half the Treasury's press statements seem to be nothing but raves about some obscure economic statistic or another.

It has always been my belief that what really determines peoples' perceptions about the state of the economy is what they see in their lives, neighborhoods and workplaces. They don't pay any attention to the gross domestic product numbers or any of the lesser figures released on almost a daily basis.

If people have jobs, if their wages are rising, if they can pay for the things they need and have a little left over to invest, then they are happy about the economy. If they are unemployed or fear layoffs, if their wages are stagnating and they are wary of losing benefits, and they are having to go into debt rather than save for the future, then they are going to be unhappy about the economy no matter how great the data are or how hard the White House and Treasury hype the numbers.

Of course, the president is entitled to have the Cabinet secretaries he is most comfortable with, and if he wants someone new at Treasury, then he and his new chief of staff should move with dispatch. Snow has already been hung out to dry long enough.

It's worth remembering that there have been rumors about Snow's imminent sacking almost since he came on board in 2003, after his predecessor, Paul O'Neill, was fired. Just a year later, The Washington Post reported that the White House was already looking for Snow's replacement. The White House denied it -- he could stay as long as he liked, "provided it is not very long."

With a vote of confidence like that, it is a wonder that Snow is still around. Apparently, it was only the White House's inability to find anyone of sufficient stature to take the job that saved him. Why it thinks it will have a better chance of finding that person today is a mystery. There is really no time left to do much of anything in terms of economic policy, and Bush's two previous secretaries were forced out. Anyone coming in now will have to know that they are just going to be marking time and will have no meaningful influence.

It has been obvious for some time that President Bush relies totally on a trusted few advisers, and everyone else is pretty much occupying space. And he doesn't even treat the few trusted ones with much respect. In his book "The Price of Loyalty," journalist Ron Suskind recounts how Bush once ordered White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, a former Cabinet secretary, to run out and get him a couple of cheeseburgers. "He all but raced out of the room," Suskind reports.

Now, Bush is paying the price. As people leave his administration, some are starting to open up about its utter dysfunction and the problems it created. For example, Andrew Natsios, former director of the Agency for International Development, recently told Newsweek magazine that his agency's efforts to help rebuild Iraq were totally undermined by a lack of planning and competence at the Coalition Provisional Authority, which handled the occupation of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government.

Michael Brown, the ousted head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was blamed by the White House for all the mistakes following Hurricane Katrina. But he is starting to make a persuasive case that those well above his pay grade -- including Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff and even President Bush -- share a lot of that blame.

Not surprisingly, The New York Times reports that the White House is having great difficulty finding a new FEMA chief. It seems that everyone qualified to do the job has turned it down. Oddly, the prospect of a job where one would have to take full responsibility for everything that goes wrong but have little power to actually run the agency seems unattractive to them.

Unlike FEMA, the Treasury still has some cachet -- it's cool to know that you are sitting in Alexander Hamilton's chair. So the White House will eventually find someone with a name to do that job. But I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.