NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
As if President Bush didn't have enough headaches in his bid for re-election -- the troubles in Iraq, a stubbornly sluggish job market and persistent Democratic criticism of his policies -- he's now taking flak from some of his own supporters about his economic message.
This certainly isn't the first time Team Bush has been criticized for bungling its economic message. But the latest round of problems may be hurting consumer confidence, and the president's chances at re-election, some of his supporters say.
Consumer confidence fell in February and early March, according to several measures, largely due to weak job growth. Meanwhile, some recent polls have shown Bush trailing his likely opponent in November, Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts -- polls that have also shown a lack of confidence in White House economic policies.
Some analysts say Democrats and the media have contributed to these bad numbers by focusing on the job market to the exclusion of all else, but they also think Bush has not done enough to offset the negative headlines.
"The president's message is great, but the messenger team has been poor," said Stephen Moore, president of Club for Growth, a conservative lobbying group, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation.
Since the labor market peaked in March 2001, the economy has lost more than 2.3 million jobs. Barring a big influx of new jobs this year, Bush is set to be the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over an economy that lost jobs during his four-year term.
The president often dismisses criticism of his economic policies, saying the tax cuts he pushed in the past three years will create jobs soon. But he also doesn't want to see a repeat of the 1992 election, when his father lost a re-election bid, largely because of the perception that he was insensitive to economic woes.
"The pivotal moment in the 1992 campaign was when [the first President] Bush said, 'The economy is not as bad as you think it is'," said Norman Ornstein, political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "If this president reaches a point where he's suggesting the same thing -- and that's not far from where they are now -- then they have a problem."
But other conservatives think Bush hasn't been insensitive enough, saying he should instead be more aggressive in trumpeting his policies, an approach that might drown out his critics and raise consumer confidence.
For example, Club for Growth's Moore thought the president's speech in Ohio Wednesday, which only briefly mentioned "concern" for unemployed workers, was too defensive. Ohio has been particularly hard-hit by job losses.
"I know people are hurting, but we should be talking about the future," Moore said. "Every economic indicator is showing strong performance, and the tax cuts are directly linked to that. What's missing is that the GOP -- not just Bush, but the whole party -- is too timid on the tax-cut issue."
Still, there's no doubt that Bush -- perhaps with 1992 fresh in his mind -- has addressed the economy more often than his father did, touting his tax cuts and calling for free-trade agreements, deregulation, tort reform, health savings accounts, a national energy plan and other policies he says will also grow jobs.
He also warns that Kerry's plans to roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would be dangerous for the economy.
"The president is being very aggressive in talking about the economy," said deputy White House press secretary Claire Buchan. "He talks about it a lot more than the media report."
Stumbles show a tin ear?
But the White House and Republican leaders in Congress have also drawn criticism for not joining Democratic efforts to extend a federal unemployment benefit program that expired at the end of 2003.
And Gregory Mankiw, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), recently caused a political firestorm when he said offshore outsourcing was a good thing for the economy. In fact, many economists agree with him -- but his statement raised the ire of politicians and unemployed workers and drew greater media attention to the issue of outsourcing.
Perhaps more embarrassingly, the President's Economic Report, produced by the CEA, contained a section in which Bush's advisers mulled the benefits of calling fast-food workers "manufacturers," since they "manufacture" hamburgers and the like.
"Will special sauce now be counted as a durable good?" Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., wrote in a letter last month to Mankiw.
The White House also drew fire from Democrats Wednesday and Thursday over its consideration of Tony Raimondo, CEO of Behlen Manufacturing, to be its "manufacturing czar," a new Commerce Department post meant to help the manufacturing sector, which has lost 3.3 million jobs since 1998.
Democrats have criticized Bush for waiting since Labor Day to fill the post and hastened on Wednesday to note that Behlen, which makes farm equipment, has laid off U.S. workers and opened a plant in China.
Raimondo withdrew his name from consideration for the post late Thursday. But the fact that the White House even considered such a person to run its manufacturing policy is yet more proof, Democrats say, that the administration has a tin ear when it comes to workers' complaints.
"There's a growing concern that the White House is out of touch," said Greg Valliere, a neutral political economist and chief strategist at Charles Schwab Washington Research Group. "He has to show more empathy, and he hasn't done a good job on that."
The White House also rejects that notion.
"The president always indicates he's still not satisfied, that job creation is not yet where it needs to be," said Buchan of the White House.
Then there are the administration's predictions about job growth, which have missed the mark so far. Most private forecasters have been off target as well but the White House forecasts have been more optimistic than most.
This year, for example, the CEA forecast job growth of about 320,000 new jobs a month in 2004. That forecast was based on old data, and administration officials quickly backed away from it, but Democrats have ridiculed the numbers as wildly optimistic.
Of course, if job growth recovers soon, those predictions -- and some of the history of Bush's problems with economic message, including the resignations of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and other advisers in December 2002 -- will be quickly forgotten. But if the labor-market recovery is sluggish, as some economists think it will be, then Bush might have to work harder to build confidence that his policies are the right medicine.
"Unless the Bush administration can successfully counter recent criticism, Bush and consumer confidence might continue to flounder," said Anthony Crescenzi, bond market strategist at Miller Tabak & Co. and a supporter of the president's policies. "If so, the markets will justifiably worry about Bush's chances of re-election."