A funny thing happened on the way to the economic forum. On last week's Meet the Press, Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill finally embraced his role as the Bush administration's chief economic spokesman. Then he shrugged it off.
Tim Russert: Do you believe that you are the chief economic spokesman?
O'Neill: I do.
Russert: And you're fulfilling that role?
O'Neill: I do.
Russert: And that you have calmed people's nerves and calmed the markets?
O'Neill: Well, I don't accept the notion that somehow saying a few words will calm the markets.
The exchange begs the question, is a man who doesn't believe that words can affect the markets really the best choice for chief economic spokesman?
Would you put your kids on a bus with someone who didn't believe in steering wheels?
It is precisely that kind of aloof statement in the middle of an economic crisis that has investors and the press questioning whether O'Neill is the right man for the job. But more to the point, why is it that an administration populated by CEOs and MBAs hasn't produced a single strong voice on the economy?
Partially to deal with that question, Bush will gather his economic team at a "forum on his ranch later this month. Any one of several men on that team could emerge as the administration's point man for the economy - but who? Some are compromised by past private-sector involvements, while others are simply ill-suited for the job.
Right man to be front and center?
By virtue of his position, O'Neill should be the one out front on the markets. It is, quite simply, his job - but his actions and statements suggest that he either doesn't want it or he just isn't very good at it.
"Nobody can reassure the markets except for the Treasury secretary, and he apparently doesn't think it's important to play that role, says Larry Haas, SVP of public affairs at MS&L, and former director of communications for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). "He has said that he doesn't want to play the game. The problem is, particularly in a time of crisis, if everyone else is playing the game, he needs to step up and fulfill the role that they are looking to him for."
O'Neill has done much to lose the confidence of investors. His words are often marked by a strange indifference - and an occasional hostility - toward the expectation that he help soothe Americans about their money.
He was criticized in May for touring Africa with rock star Bono as America's markets were sliding, and his reaction was seen as less than graceful: "If people don't like what I'm doing, I don't give a damn. I could be sailing around on a yacht or driving around the country." According to one source close to the administration, the "yacht comment nearly bought O'Neill the farm.
Then, when the markets were suffering some of their worst days ever last month, he was criticized for traveling through Central Asia, tending to the economies of countries most Americans couldn't even pronounce. He seemed baffled, protesting, "I'm constantly amazed that anybody cares what I do."
He has made no bones about his belief that Washington can't do much for the economy, an unexpected philosophy for the head of the Treasury, and his reactions to suggestions otherwise border on the extreme. When he got fed up with accusations that Bush's team was responsible for the lack of investor confidence, he made this regrettable comparison: "As long as they're at it, they should have said the economic team is responsible for the planes crashing into the Twin Towers."
Then there's the credibility gap. From the beginning, O'Neill's statements have occasionally been at odds with administration policy, leading some to believe that he's not really in the loop. He has been forced to backpedal after making what seemed to be policy statements on everything from corporate reforms to last year's economic stimulus bill.
And lastly, investors simply don't see him as one of their own. Unlike his predecessor, Robert Rubin, O'Neill doesn't hail from Wall Street.
He made his money as CEO of aluminum company Alcoa. The much-beloved Rubin was not only a talented speaker with a flair for calming nerves, he was a former investment banker. That claim bought him instant credibility among investors, and his shadow continues to haunt O'Neill in the form of unfavorable comparisons and even open conflict between the two.
An administration with few options
So if not O'Neill, who?
"(OMB director) Mitch Daniels would be the next choice, says Fleishman-Hillard budget expert Stan Collender. "Daniels has done a very good job of representing the President on the budget, but he hasn't broadened his profile beyond that, and his credibility on Capitol Hill is being questioned."
"His problems are extensive, but different, says Haas. "He has a tin ear for politics, and a disagreeable nature when it comes to relations with members of Congress."
Indeed, Daniels' negotiating style has earned him such animosity on the Hill that some say he will have trouble continuing even in his intended role, let alone expanding to economic front man. Daniels claims he has intentionally turned himself into Bush's lightning rod in Congress. A shrewd PR tactic for Bush maybe, but hardly a boon to Daniels' image.
The affable and telegenic Commerce Secretary Donald Evans is the cabinet member most often handed to the Sunday talk shows when O'Neill is unavailable, and as such may seem a likely candidate. Unfortunately, "Wall Street just isn't looking to the commerce secretary. His job isn't that important, says Collender. "Even the strongest commerce secretary will never be seen in the same light as the Treasury secretary and the OMB director."
Plus, Evans is compromised by his status as a veteran of the oil industry, suggests an administration source. Because the public already views the Bush team as being too closely tied to the oil industry, they have little desire to put this former CEO of a major oil firm out in front as their voice on the economy.
The "oil problem taints the President and Dick Cheney as well. Bush got his start in business as an oilman, and Cheney left his post as CEO of oil-services company Halliburton to join the administration.
But more than oil taints Cheney and Bush. The same scandals that have sent the economy reeling have touched both the President and Vice President, seriously compromising their ability to stand up front on economic issues.
Cheney has kept a low profile on all matters since it was discovered that, under his watch, Halliburton counted uncollected fees from government contracts as current income, artificially inflating its profits (the SEC is investigating). And questions about a possible insider stock sale from 1994 have resurfaced to haunt Bush.
It's clear by now that the Bush administration is acknowledging this problem, and it's wisely countering it with a national PR campaign. In addition to the upcoming economic forum, Bush and his team (excluding Cheney) are fanning out across the country to make appearances stressing the good news about the economy, and already last week O'Neill canceled a trip to Latin America and made the rounds on the Sunday talk shows.
He showed up with an uncharacteristic optimism: "People who are invested in the American economy over time are going to win. There has never been an extended period of time in our history where investments in the US economy didn't win, and people will win again."
If that tone is truly a sign of a changed O'Neill, maybe investors will find confidence in him. But if not, the common wisdom goes, look for O'Neill to return to his yacht soon after the November elections.
WHY CAN'T THESE MEN INSTILL FAITH IN THE ECONOMY?
PAUL O'NEILL - Treasury secretary
Gaffe-prone when it comes to public statements. Doesn't believe that
anyone's words can influence the economy
MITCH DANIELS - OMB director
Has a "tin ear for politics." Prickly negotiating style has earned him
animosity among lawmakers
DON EVANS - Commerce secretary
Too closely associated with oil industry. Commerce Department seen as
LAWRENCE LINDSEY - Bush's chief economic advisor
Politically unsavvy. Prefers to keep low profile behind the President
DICK CHENEY - Vice President
Former CEO of oil-services company Halliburton is tied up in SEC
investigation of accounting practices.
GEORGE W. BUSH - President
Seen as too "in-bed" with corporate donors. Press questions 1994 Harken
stock sale every time he discusses the economy