By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2004; Page E01
High oil prices, a stagnant labor market -- and the lack of a more forceful response from the Bush campaign -- have sparked worry among White House allies that the administration's economic team has been too content cheerleading in defense of past policies instead of setting more detailed plans for a second term.
While the economic recovery hummed along, there were few complaints about the low-key styles of Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, National Economic Council director Stephen Friedman and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman N. Gregory Mankiw -- especially after the internal bickering that marred the tenure of Bush's first economic team. But recent news, from slowing economic growth to wilting job creation, has changed the landscape. With the Republican convention a week away, allies and opponents are clamoring for more specifics.
"You either define yourself on these big issues or the Democrats will define you," said Richard K. Armey, the former House Republican leader who co-chairs the new conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks. "John Kerry will do just fine with what he thinks your secret plan is if you don't tell us what it is."
"This is a team that's much more subtle, much more behind the scenes, working together rather than three lone rangers" like the first Bush team, said Diane Swonk, the chief economist at Bank One Corp. "Up until even just a month ago, it was okay to be behind the scenes, but we have a different economic atmosphere now."
Responding to such pleas, the Bush campaign recently began advertising the "ownership agenda," with the president intoning, "One of the most important parts of a reform agenda is to encourage people to own something: own their own home, own their own business, own their own health care plan or own a piece of their retirement."
But the advertisement did little to quell the concern. Voters, in fact, received few details. Those were left to a fact sheet e-mailed to reporters: tax-free medical savings accounts, assistance with down payments for low-income home buyers, the extension of previous tax cuts and the diversion of some Social Security taxes to personal accounts that could be invested in stocks or bonds.
Armey said Bush spoke more clearly and forcefully on some of these issues -- especially Social Security privatization -- in the 2000 campaign than he is doing now. Besides, said Richard Berner, chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, "he has been talking about the ownership agenda for a while. I can't see this at all as new."
"I guess the most accurate thing I could say is there's sort of a deafening silence," said Donald Luskin, a conservative investment adviser in California. Referring to the current economic team, Luskin said, "The period these people have been in power is a period when very little economic initiative has been coming out of the White House."
On Wall Street, numerous economists praise the team's handling of some delicate matters. Through frequent visits and earnest listening sessions, Snow has repaired relations between the administration and the financial community after the damage done by his predecessor, Paul H. O'Neill, whose offhand and sometimes insulting comments upset Wall Street.
The Treasury Department has deftly handled an orderly decline in the value of the dollar, boosting U.S. exports through dollar deflation without creating a currency crisis, the economists said. Faced with anger over Chinese imports, the economic team has diplomatically placated protectionist voices without disrupting trade relations.
Those are points of pride to the Treasury as well, said Snow's chief spokesman, Rob Nichols. Snow goes to Wall Street every two to three weeks, holds roundtables with prominent economists from brokerage houses, and on specific subjects, such as China, summons importers, exporters, manufacturing and finance experts before making policy statements.
But, these same economists complained, the public comments of administration officials -- especially Snow -- tend toward boosterism, no matter the audience or the economic news at the moment.
"The secretary of Treasury has done a more than adequate job expositing the views of the president," said Allen Sinai, president and chief economist of Decision Economics Inc. But, he added, "Is he a brilliant leader of policy, creatively dealing with the issues? Look, what I've not seen from this administration is a clear articulation of policy for the future."
In February, after the economy added a disappointing 83,000 jobs, Snow told an audience at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a prominent private, nonpartisan organization headquartered in Washington, "The president's tax cuts have worked." In April, with jobs rising smartly but record trade and budget deficits weighing on bond traders' minds, he told the Bond Market Association in New York, "We're on very solid footing, our upward trend is strong, and there can be no doubt that President Bush's leadership on tax cuts has made a decisive difference."
In May, when the unemployment rate of 20- to 24-year-olds had risen to 9.7 percent, from 9.2 percent the month before, he told graduates at Kenyon College in Ohio, "The job market is ripe for you right now."
On Thursday, Snow told employees of a ventilation company in Springfield, Mo., "The tax cuts . . . are a critical part of the reason why I am able to report that our national economy has found its footing." Meanwhile, in New York, the Conference Board, a business research firm, reported a second straight monthly decline in its index of leading economic indicators. "The latest decline in the leading index reflects a loss of forward momentum," said Conference Board economist Ken Goldstein, citing "worries about where economic growth will come from now that tax refunds have been spent."
Suzy DeFrancis, a deputy assistant to the president who helps coordinate the administration's economic message, said that, far from mere boosterism, administration officials "are giving an accurate picture of what the economy looks like at any given time."
But the current message of economic rebirth is "only working moderately well" with voters, and repeating it in the face of contrary news is not going to help, said Frank Luntz, a pollster and focus group organizer. "I think these guys need to have a real education session with the American people," he said.
"There's a discussion of what's positive -- that's natural -- but there's not a discussion of the risks. There's discussion of tax cuts, and their gains, but not their costs," said Sinai of Decision Economics. "Leveling with Americans on risk, on the facts of life, on really why things are done, and even admitting that mistakes have been made, I think Americans understand all that. And I don't think we're getting leveled with."
Without a more explicit economic plan, interested parties can fill in the blanks. In recent days, taking advantage of statements by the president as well as a government study issued in Washington, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee, charged that Bush will push a regressive, national sales tax if reelected, will slash spending on veterans and will further shift the federal tax burden from the rich to the middle class.
"Because there's this huge intellectual void, anybody with an idea of the day has the policy of the day, until it is shot down by the next idea," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who was a political strategist in the Clinton White House.
Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said the president will unveil concrete proposals for his next term in his speech to the convention and in the run-up to Election Day. But skeptics, many of them supporters, are beginning to doubt the president will get much beyond general themes such as "ownership" or "tax simplification."
"When you're on the campaign trail with all these politicos who know nothing about the economy and are saying, 'We've got to do something,' there's got to be pressure to come up with something at least rhetorically beyond 'Four More Years,' " said Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist and commentator. "But as far as I can see, there's nothing."© 2004 The Washington Post Company