Vaunted Obama message machine is off-key

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 yesterday, 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 yesterday’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.

“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.

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