Bush Aides Divided on US Gloom: Is Press or Economic Change to Blame?

THE Bush campaign, still lagging behind Democrat Bill Clinton's, blames the news media for much of its troubles.

High-ranking Republicans, including President Bush, charge that the press puts too much emphasis on gloomy economic news, such as unemployment and budget deficits, and too little on the positive side.

As a result, they say, voters are pessimistic about the economic future of the United States and unhappy with the man in the White House.

Critics counter that the president and his advisers fail to comprehend the level of economic pain and anxiety among American voters, and have only themselves to blame.

Robert Teeter, the president's campaign chairman, is one who faults the media. Asked whether he thinks press coverage is unbalanced, he recently told a group of reporters at a luncheon:

"Yes, I do. I'm not ... anxious to get into a fight with the press. But I do think press coverage, not only of the president, but particularly of the conditions in the country, has been much more negative ... than actual conditions warrant."

Public opinion polls find that 4 out of every 5 voters today think the country is on the wrong track. But now that Bush is campaigning across the country, Mr. Teeter insists those numbers will begin to moderate.

He says: "The country, at least in my view, is in nowhere near as bad a shape as those numbers indicate. I think a lot of that is attitudinal, and not real experience."

Bush took a similar swipe at the media in his acceptance speech at last week's Republican National Convention. After detailing some of his economic achievements, such as the lowest interest rates in 20 years and a reduction in inflation, he told the delegates: "You don't hear much about this good news, because the media ... tends to focus only on the bad. When the Berlin Wall fell, I half expected to see a headline: `Wall Falls, Three Border Guards Lose Jobs.' " Brady admits flaw

Not every member of the Bush team takes such an aggressive stance toward the press.

Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, a close friend of the president, concedes that the administration probably has not shown sufficient empathy for millions of Americans who felt the double impact of recession and restructuring.

In a conversation with Monitor reporters, he said: "I'll give you what I think is an explanation, and I hope you won't take it as an apology."

The US is going through a long-term adjustment, he said. While small businesses are adding workers, the nation's biggest companies, the Fortune 500, are reducing the number of people they employ.

It's all part of their effort to adjust to a new age of international competition, said Mr. Brady.

He compares this adjustment to the wrenching change that took place during the past century when the US went from 25 percent of its people working on farms to just 2 percent today.

"That must have been an enormously painful thing when we were going through it for people on the farms," he says.

"But the point is, we got through it, and I don't think anybody would go back and change what happened.

"Today [a similar thing is happening] in our largest, most well-advertised companies - AT&T, General Motors, Ford, IBM: contractions which allow them to get their cost structures in line with international cost structures, so that they can come back and build the thing up with export sales. And I think they will.

"At the same time, we've got to make sure that the job-generating mechanism in this country, which is small businesses, isn't hindered [by taxes], which is what the Clinton program does." Problems acknowledged

Chairman Teeter, when reminded by reporters that 10 million Americans are unemployed, that thousands are losing their homes, and that new jobless claims are setting records, also concedes that some people are having serious problems.

He says: "There is a lot of restructuring going on, probably to our long-term benefit. That is very tough and very painful to a lot of people who are moving from one job to another.

"You see people who used to work with companies for all their lives, or work 20 or 30 years in a company, and have to change jobs, or are out of a job for awhile.

"And I think one of the things we have to address ourselves to is how to make some of that restructuring less painful.... That is one of the great challenges ... over the next five or 10 years," Teeter says.

As fits his role, however, Teeter quickly brings the conversation back around to the 1992 presidential campaign.

Once you recognize the problem, he says, the question is: How do you fix it? And who could do a better job?

"It is not a denial that those problems exist. It is a choice between which direction to try and go to fix the problems."

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