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Bush needs a proven PR adviser

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WASHINGTON — With the wealth of talented experience George W. Bush brought to his administration, the one thing he seems to have forgotten is a first-class public-relations adviser — someone who could remind him and his aides that often it isn't what you say but how you say it that makes the difference.

From the very beginning, President Bush's failure to give enough attention to public relations has made him seem on the side of wealth and big business and against the interests of most Americans. That actually is not true, but White House clumsiness in dealing with issues from the environment to stem cell research to the patients' bill of rights certainly has made it look that way.

When a political decision is made, there appears to be no real thought given to marketing it, raising real concern about his ability to persuade Americans on upcoming issues like defense overhaul, energy and Medicare reform.

For instance, the insensitive handling of last-minute Clinton administration conservation regulations has left Bush scrambling to overcome unfair allegations that he is uncaring about the environment. This perception has led to declining public confidence in his ability to protect our natural resources and has given Democrats a major issue for the 2002 congressional elections.

The fact is, the president had strong justification in postponing regulations on arsenic content in water and in announcing the Kyoto treaty on global warming was dead in the U.S. Had he explained first that he was concerned about the arsenic levels but wanted to conduct a study on the regulation's adequacy before its implementation — which, after all, isn't scheduled to take effect until 2006 — the reaction might have been different. He really didn't have to say anything about Kyoto. The treaty has absolutely no chance of ratification by the Senate.

His handling of the energy crisis in California, the high price of gasoline and what the country must do in the future to meet its fuel needs has been a public-relations nightmare, once again leaving him with the image of one who is callously unsympathetic to the problems of common citizens. Instead of selling Americans on the need to employ a variety of solutions to the nation's energy problems including conservation, alternative fuels and increased sources, he gave the impression he was only for the latter and wasn't bothered by the oil industry's record profits.

In fact, both he and Vice President Richard Cheney made things worse by disdaining the importance of conservation and by emphasizing such proposals as opening the vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas development, setting off an unprecedented storm of protest from nearly every environmentalist from Pennsylvania Avenue to downtown Anchorage. It was another example of how the White House seems to be unable to finesse anything.

While using polls to set policy, as President Clinton did, is a bad way to administer and lead, surveys are important in determining how to market decisions after they have been made. There is every indication that the Bush White House consults the polls as often as most modern administrations, but there doesn't seem to be much thought given to overall public perception.

The current debate over patients' rights is a good case in point. There is much wrong with the bill and the president's threat to veto it if civil litigation provisions aren't severely revised is proper. As constructed by the Senate, the bill becomes another major windfall for lawyers and would clearly raise the cost of health-care substantially.

But managed-care health organizations and insurance companies have shown a disturbing pattern of disregard for patient needs as a means of controlling health costs while lining the pockets of their stockholders and executives, and the White House has remained silent about this seeming abuse. In the midst of the debate, for instance, it was disclosed that the officers of major health maintenance organizations have been receiving millions of dollars in salaries, bonuses and incentive packages.

Fortunately for Bush, it is quite early in his term and he can alter public perception. But if he is to do so, he must market his own attributes, including friendliness and genuine caring, far better than he has been. He must become a better salesman.


Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.