By Stuart Rothenberg
The Republican National Committee churned out a couple of press releases recently after Tony Snow was selected to be President Bush’s new press secretary. The gist of both releases was that Snow is a great pick.
The releases quoted a variety of Democrats, conservatives and journalists praising Snow. Democratic lawyer Lanny Davis, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas) cited his integrity, fairness and credibility. NBC’s Tim Russert characterized Snow as “polished” and “articulate,” and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos called him “smart and very likable,” and predicted, “he’s going to do very well.”
Even if all of that is true — and I have no reason to doubt the characterizations, even though I don’t know Snow except to nod hello — it doesn’t really matter.
Five and a half years ago, the selection of Snow might have said something about Bush’s presidency. It might even have affected press sentiment, and therefore, public opinion. But not now. It’s way too late for that.
Voters don’t really care who the press secretary is or what he does, and one week from now, most people outside the Beltway won’t be able to tell you the name of the person in that position, except for loyal Fox News Channel viewers.
Americans are paying attention to the war in Iraq, gas prices, the cost of prescription drugs and a handful of other issues that pop up from week to week. But you can be sure that the White House press secretary isn’t one of them.
Can you imagine a husband turning to his wife over dinner to comment about the new press secretary?
“Hey, did you see that White House press briefing this afternoon while you were at work?”
“Yes,” says Gertrude, “You know, Earl, I haven’t been entirely happy with the president’s decision-making recently, but that Snow pick is great. I think Bush is doing a really good job after all.”
Snow may well be a strong advocate for the president, and I suppose he could have an impact on White House decision-making and even policy. But ultimately, the public is concerned about issues that have greater relevance to them and their lives.
Moreover, the RNC press release will be obsolete in a matter of hours. What matters is performance. If Snow does well — whatever that means — he’ll be an asset to the president. If he doesn’t, or if the news continues to be bad and Americans continue to be disappointed in Bush’s performance, it won’t matter that Durbin or anyone else thinks Snow is articulate, fair, smart or likable.
The administration’s personnel shake-ups haven’t had much of an effect on the public, or on the public’s perception of the president. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Real people— that is, those not in the media or the campaign industry, and those not living inside the Beltway — don’t see a new White House chief of staff, OMB director and press secretary as being all that relevant to their lives.
There has been plenty of buzz about possible other changes in the administration, including at Treasury. Of course, the economy is now one of the administration’s bright spots, so the White House will probably replace Treasury Secretary John Snow. It’s just logical.
In fact, the only personnel change that would really get the nation’s attention is at Defense. But so far, of course, the president has stood firmly behind Donald Rumsfeld.
Fairly or unfairly, Secretary Rumsfeld has received much of the blame for Iraq, and his resignation undoubtedly would be seen by many Americans (as well as those around the world) as an opportunity for the administration to change policy. His exit would be huge news — the kind of news that would get attention from real people.
Some analysts have suggested that the president can’t ask for Rumsfeld’s resignation because that would be tantamount to the president acknowledging that his policies haven’t been working.
But given that a majority of Americans believe that the war was a mistake, that the president’s handling of the war is receiving low marks and that most of the daily news out of Iraq does not encourage optimism, the Defense secretary’s continued service hasn’t convinced anyone (except, apparently, the president) that the existing policy is working.
Ultimately, it seems that President Bush and the White House have come to at least one correct conclusion: They have a messenger problem. But unfortunately, the White House has chosen to replace nonessential personnel, instead of replacing someone like Rumsfeld.
Replacing Rumsfeld would help correct the administration’s second problem: their message. “Stay the course” and “be patient” in Iraq isn’t cutting it with the American people. And the president’s party will suffer the penalties for that problem in November, no matter who is giving the daily White House press briefing.
This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 1, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Thursday, May 04, 2006
By Stuart Rothenberg