Vaunted Obama message machine is off-key

WASHINGTON Tue Mar 10, 2009 3:46pm EDT

President Barack Obama smiles before signing an Executive Order on stem cell research while in the East Room of the White House, March 9, 2009. REUTERS/Larry Downing

President Barack Obama smiles before signing an Executive Order on stem cell research while in the East Room of the White House, March 9, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When billionaire investor Warren Buffett says President Barack Obama's economic message is muddled and undermining public confidence, it's worth listening.

Halfway through his first 100 days in office, ace communicator Obama has struggled to find the right tone in talking about the economy, twinning bleak warnings with optimism about the future.

On the campaign trail, Obama said a president must be able to do more than one thing at a time, and his White House has been doing that.

He and his aides have interspliced comments about the economy while launching theme-of-the-day initiatives on healthcare, stem cell research and on Tuesday, education.

Last week the White House spent some time accusing conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh of being leader of the Republican Party.

But Obama, together with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, White House economic guru Lawrence Summers and others have so far failed to explain how they plan to rescue American banks, some of which are teetering on the brink of collapse.

There is talk of "stress tests" for troubled banks, or nationalizing them or letting some fail -- but no clear plan.

Buffett, an informal Obama adviser considered a financial seer on Wall Street, told CNBC on Monday the message has to be "very, very clear as to what government will be doing."

"And I think we've had, and it's the nature of the political process somewhat, but we've had muddled messages and the American public does not know. They feel they don't know what's going on, and their reaction then is to absolutely pull back," he said.

At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs reacted defensively, saying Obama has only been in office seven weeks and it should be no surprise that "all of the problems that took many years to take hold haven't necessarily been solved."

Obama, at Tuesday's education event, rejected criticism that he is trying to do too many things at once, citing three predecessors who managed to juggle challenges on many fronts --Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

"President Kennedy didn't have the luxury of choosing between civil rights and sending us to the moon. And we don't have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term," he said.

Obama is benefiting from high popular support. Polls give him a 60 percent approval rating and experts say voters seem willing to give him time to get his sea legs.

"You've got a public that is going to cut the president some slack and understands this is a deep-seated problem," said American Enterprise Institute political analyst Norman Ornstein.

COULD BE A PROBLEM BY SUMMER

"But if there's no sign of progress of any sort, no sign that the policies he implemented beginning in January and February are doing anything by June, July or August, then he's going to have a bigger political problem," Ornstein said.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said the administration has left the public confused about what will happen to the banks and may be inadvertently sending a message that "the problem may be too big for government to solve."

"I can't figure out what they're talking about on the banks," he said.

Tony Fratto, a former Treasury and White House spokesman for former President George W. Bush, said a muddled message was not the only problem.

"It's not just a message problem. It's partially a fact problem, and that is the market is not getting clear information on what Treasury's intentions are for the rest of this program," he said.

(Editing by Alan Elsner)

FILED UNDER: