Times are kind of

“Times are kind of tough,” President Bush told CEOs and investment gurus in Waco today. And how. Especially if you’re the Bush administration. Most media outlets I saw today framed coverage thusly: was the Forum a genuine forum or a hollow PR exercise? That meant the White House had already lost the battle, since framed that way, the question pretty much answers itself. And not in a way the White House would like.

Yet the Forum — and other similar exercises — are beginning to illustrate an important reality — one which the press corps is hard pressed to grasp, with its frequent emphasis on atmospherics and trappings and spin.

According to conventional wisdom, George Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton because he ignored the economy. He insisted it was good when it wasn’t good; he didn’t focus on it; he seemed not to care, etc. Bill Clinton beat him by doing the opposite. And this President Bush is determined not to make his father’s mistake.

The conventional wisdom assumes it’s all a matter of optics; but it’s not. The White House and the media are engaged in a meta-discussion about the president’s efforts to look engaged and focused on the economy. The hard reality, though, is that it’s very difficult for a conservative president to actually do anything in a down economy — because doing so goes against both his ideology and the interests of his key political constituencies.

(In this case you also have the president deeply and inextricably invested in long-term fiscal irresponsibility. But that’s just icing on the cake.)

Thus you see the president doing politically foolish things like cutting $5 billion in funding for things like helping the firefighters at Ground Zero and sending aid to Afghanistan, which is currently crumbling under the weight of the White House’s heavy inattention. The problem is only in small part one of appearances and political tactics. It’s really a conflict between the White House’s desire to appear to do something and its ideology which dictates that it do nothing.

Now to other matters.

Still no response from the Washington Post about the egregious pilfering of the name of this website. But new developments are brewing. We shall keep you up-to-date. And thank all of you again for sending all the emails to the Post. It’s much appreciated.

Bob Novak had a very good column on Sunday about the more moderate wing of the Bush administration pulling out all the stops to beat some reason into the head of the president on Iraq — particularly a face-to-face meeting the president had with Powell and his extremely influential deputy Richard Armitage. If you’re following this issue, definitely take a look.

As regular readers know, I came to the reluctant conclusion that we should move against Iraq. But this administration seems intent on doing it in the most reckless, foolhardy and impetuous manner possible. Enough to make you think that if it’s going to be done like this, it might be better left undone. It’s a close-run thing as far as I’m concerned. And I’ll be saying more on this soon. But if you’re following this, definitely take a look at Novak’s column.