WASHINGTON — After several months of bad news, the Bush administration has discovered the source of its problems. It turns out that it's not the Democrats, not really anyway. It's not Saddam or Osama. It's not even Bill Clinton. No, the problem, it turns out, is the media.
The press, particularly the Washington press, has created a "filter" that's blocking the good news from getting out, the president says. He insists that positive stories abound in Iraq and in the US economy. Things are looking up all over. But you in the public aren't being allowed to hear about it. And if you could hear about it, you'd feel a lot better about the direction of the country.
This is the new line from the White House as it's taken its good-news message around the country, in speeches and in interviews with local television stations and smaller newspapers.
The motives here aren't hard to discern.
Presidents have long sought to reach beyond the Washington press corps to take their message directly to the people. More than 80 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson went on a whistle-stop tour to try to generate public support for the League of Nations.
In terms of strategy, the new White House approach is something of a no-brainer. The press ranks just below trial lawyers, telemarketers, and the French as a favorite piñata for surly Americans.
And then there's the chance to suggest that the press leans left politically and simply can't be fair in its reporting. This argument, in case you haven't talked to Anne Coulter recently, was put forward again last week by the president's mom. Barbara Bush told NBC News that "my gut feeling is that all the media is against George, Republicans, any Republican."
Ah, yes. It's lonely at the top, particularly if you have the misfortune of being a Republican. But even with the odds and the media- industrial complex stacked against him, the president is soldiering on, or so the story goes.
This is all very interesting, even compelling, save for one small problem. When one looks at the facts, the argument just doesn't hold up. In fact, up until the last few months, one could argue that the Bush administration has had a relatively easy time of it with the press. Most of the potential "scandals" the press could have latched on to - Enron, Halliburton, etc. - were mostly overlooked, even by the usually tenacious Washington press corps, in large part probably because since Sept. 11 there are bigger issues at stake.
But now, as much as the president wants good news reported, there simply isn't a lot to be had at the moment. The nation's former surplus is now a record deficit, thanks in large part to tax cuts the president advocated. School principals and parents are unhappy with the education reform he pushed for and then underfunded. States aren't pleased that they're seeing more federal mandates, some of which involve homeland security, without seeing more money coming their way.
On top of all of this is Iraq, where the president maintains the press isn't reporting on the major progress being made. But at the same time, his secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said in a candid memo that it's "pretty clear" the US and its allies can carry the day "but it will be a long, hard slog."
And as time goes by, it's becoming clearer that the US went into Iraq on faulty information that was either poorly gathered and assembled or put together to be deliberately misleading.
Of course, not all of these problems are completely the president's fault - though some unmistakably bear his stamp of responsibility - but that's the negative side of sitting in the Oval Office, just as the positive side comes when one gets credit for things one has nothing to do with. If the president has any questions about this aspect of the office he holds, he'd be well advised to talk with his father, who watched his ratings hit the 90 percent range before plummeting quickly to the 40s.
Much the president's support is based on the fact that people find him to be personally likeable. Like it or not, that's increasingly the nature of politics in America. But the press's job isn't to cover personality; it is to cover the news. And you can call it a filter, if you like, or you can call it bias, but the news, of late, is not good.
And that's why strategies like the one Mr. Bush is employing now rarely work. You can rail against the messenger all you want, but when the message is bad, it doesn't sound like defending yourself, it sounds like whining.