Bolton Needs to Focus on Economy

Posted: Apr 11, 2006 12:09 PM

WASHINGTON -- If there is one strategy President Bush's conservative supporters want his new chief of staff, Josh Bolten, to put into effect it is an aggressive marketing campaign to promote the economy's performance.

And there are signals from the West Wing that Bolten is going to do just that with some strategic personnel changes, possibly including a new Treasury secretary to replace battle-weary John Snow, and a beefed up, politically-savvy promotional offensive to tout the economy's strengths and continued good health.

Outside of the war in Iraq, no other issue has been more frustrating for the White House and supply-side tax-cutters. The U.S. economy remains strong, shrinking the unemployment rate, boosting exports and fueling a bullish market on Wall Street, but the president's scores on his handling of it are mediocre. The Gallup Poll reports that only one-third of Americans rate the economy as good or excellent. Bush's job-approval grades on the economy have been at 40 percent and lower in recent weeks, a figure that has generally been "stable across the last several months," says Gallup.

Especially galling for the White House are polls showing that, despite the great numbers the economy is producing, Americans by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent think the Democrats would do a better job than the Republicans in managing it.

"That's really baffling in light of the economy's growth," says Cesar Conda, Vice President Dick Cheney's former domestic policy adviser who now offers outside advice to the White House on economic issues.

Conda thinks that with the midterm campaigns approaching, and polls showing voters in sour political mood about a broad range of issues, how the country perceives the economy's health will be critical to the elections' outcome this fall.

"It's crucial that Republicans focus on the economy and begin telling the story about how strong it is, and I think we'll see that reflected in a possible new focus by the White House on the economy when Bolten takes over," Conda told me.

Bolten, the former budget director, comes into the top job with a lot of skills that departing chief of staff Andy Card didn't have in terms of policy development and policy implementation -- particularly on economics and budget policies. He has privately expressed concern over the president's poor polling scores on the economy and is determined to change that in the months to come, former administration officials told me.

"I think Josh will definitely push hard to make sure the American people know how good the economy is. It's important to be aggressive on that," said Trent Duffy, the former White House deputy press secretary.

"You've got a really hot economy, job creation is up, but people may not feel it until August or September," he told me.

If Bolten can implement a plan that goes over the heads of the news media (which turns anything good about the economy into a negative), there is a great story to tell about how the economy overcame terrorist attacks, corporate and accounting scandals, war, oil price hikes and one of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history -- thanks to tax-cut policies that unlocked the investment capital needed to fuel its expansion.

We've seen some of the evidence of this resilience and strength in the last three months. Among them:

    -- The Conference Board's March Consumer Confidence Index rose to 107.2, its highest level in four years.

    -- Job growth has gathered momentum, hammering unemployment down in 39 states over the last 12 months, while employment has risen in the past year in 48 states. Jobless claims have been in a long decline. The unemployment rate has fallen below 5 percent.

    -- The consensus forecast for the economy overall is that it has grown perhaps by nearly 4 percent since January.

    -- While the housing market has cooled down from its frenetic pace, the building industry is still hot. The Commerce Department reports that construction spending grew by 0.8 percent in February, up by 0.4 percent the month before.

This is the optimistic, uplifting can-do story about the U.S. economy that deserves to be told and often. The economy has its share of problems, to be sure, from layoffs at GM to a sharp spike in oil and gas prices, but the majority of Americans have every right to feel confident about its continued growth and prosperity.

If Bolten can get this story told effectively and dramatically, Bush's polls should jump.