The new president needs to connect

How is it possible that - despite a series of high-profile statements and addresses by President Bush - financial markets continue to gyrate wildly, consumer confidence has gotten worse rather than better, and skepticism about the federal government's proposed solutions to the economic crisis abounds?

How is it possible that – despite a series of high-profile statements and addresses by President Bush – financial markets continue to gyrate wildly, consumer confidence has gotten worse rather than better, and skepticism about the federal government's proposed solutions to the economic crisis abounds?

Steadily announced layoffs, continuing problems with consumer and business credit, and poor stock and bond market results continue to take their toll on the American financial psyche.

But poor communications bears most of the blame. From a communications perspective, the Bush administration has handled the economic crisis about as wrong as is possible. There have been no credible spokespeople; the messages about what is being done and why it should be supported have been wrong or incomplete; the White House has failed to understand the multiple audiences involved; and, to this day, few people grasp that the actions being taken are needed or will be effective.

President Bush has been completely ineffective as a communicator in this situation. The fact that his overall credibility is as low as it has ever been, hurts. The president's failure to be convincing in this situation points to a larger, long-standing failure: the Bush administration has done little to establish its credentials on the economy. Other than tax cuts, the White House has avoided talking about the economy, preferring to talk about Iraq and terrorism.

That may have worked had the economy and financial markets not gone into a tailspin. But, as was virtually inevitable over an eight-year presidency, a severe economic problem was likely to – and did – arise. When it did happen, the White House had done none of the things needed to establish its credibility in this area and was thus incapable of communicating effectively.

No one in the Bush administration now has credibility on economic issues. Treasury secretary Hank Paulson may be the most effective of the three Treasury secretaries in this administration, but that doesn't say much (anyone remember Paul O'Neil and John Snow?).

Paulson is not a good mass communicator. His TV appearances in the midst of the rescue plan debate were not convincing.

But a lack of convincing spokespeople is only one part of the problem. The administration largely has communicated on this crisis only with one of the key audiences –Wall Street – when several others (consumers, small business owners, taxpayers, homeowners, home buyers, retirees, etc.) desperately needed to be included. Almost no one has tried to explain why the rescue plan is better politics than no plan.

All of this points directly to what the next president needs to do. He can't wait until a crisis occurs to establish his administration's credibility on this or any other issue. He also can't keep his economic spokespeople hidden and assume that their public remarks will be taken as gospel when they are needed.
 
Stan Collender is MD at Qorvis Communications' DC office.

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