The Big Three

The meme is out there: “A thousand days.” That’s how long the Bush administration has in office (or had, to be precise, as of yesterday).

To criticize the White House—if the criticism is serious, well-grounded and well-meant—is helpful, and part of a long and good tradition. But allowing philosophical estrangement to leave you wishing the administration ill is to give in to the destructive spirit of the age. That too has a tradition, but not a good one. Five years ago this September history took a dark turn, and though we can forget it in the day to day, we’re all in this together.

In that spirit, a plan for the thousand days.

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With the appointment of Tony Snow the first round of staff changes seems ended, and the desired effect is achieved: a new start, with new people.

The sense of newness will last for a while because the reporters who tell us the news need a storyline. They need, as they say, a narrative. The narrative they will go with now is: “Staff Changes Being Felt Throughout White House / May Signal Policy Changes.”

The next story line will either be “Staff Changes Fail to Stop Listless Drift” or “Shakeups Yielded New Dynamism”.

So the story now is change, and the story a few months from now is the change that change wrought.

This is a time of opportunity. White House staffers can work to help create the future headline they want.

As a public face of the White House, Tony Snow will likely get a good start. His remarks to the press yesterday—“Believe it or not, I want very much to work with you”—were gracious, and showed legitimate sympathy for the press corps. They have hard jobs and operate under many pressures, from uncomprehending editors in the bubble back in the newsroom to officials who try to jerk them around to executive producers in New York who don’t like their hair. (One of the best White House correspondents I ever knew, a woman of seriousness and sophistication who threw the ball straight down the middle, was removed from her assignment, her career thwarted, because she’d committed the sin of not being considered pretty enough by her boss. Before she was removed she had to spend half her time getting new clothes and haircuts and makeup. This so she could do a serious job with expertise and spirit. TV is absurd.)

Mr. Snow’s White House press briefings are going to be nice to watch. The press does not want to appear to be ungracious and oppositional. They have an investment in demonstrating that the tensions each day in Scott McClellan’s press briefings, with David Gregory’s rants and Helen Thomas’s free-form animosities, were the fault of Mr. McClellan, not the press.

So they will start out gracious with Tony. Good. Everyone involved will benefit from turning the page.

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A plan for the administration? Free advice is worth the price, but here goes:

Narrow—and deepen—the focus. The administration has popped too much the past five years, tried to do too much, and all at the same time. An administration about everything is an administration about nothing.

There are three issues on which the administration can, and should, focus, and only three. Why? Because three big issues in a thousand days is more than enough, and because history itself will hand the White House new problems every day and every week—a hurricane, a scandal, a coup, a famine, an insurrection, a terror incident. It all has to be dealt with. It all will come along and take your attention, for a while, from the big three. Lincoln confessed what all presidents learn: events controlled him more than he controlled events.

Issue 1: Iraq, Afghanistan and the age of terror. On these, stabilize, fortify, succeed. Keep America safe. All this will require ruthless concentration. Back up all action with illustration and explanation. Inform the public—constantly—as to what is happening, and why, and what is being done, and why. We already know liberty is God’s gift to man; make statements that are less emotive and more fact-filled, more strategically coherent.

Renew attention to Afghanistan. The American invasion of that country had the support of the world. Don’t let anything endanger the stability and health of the endeavor. Public confidence in the administration’s management of homeland security went down after Katrina. Talk about what’s being done, and how, and why. Find Osama—it is a scandal that the man who started the new era is still free, still taunting the West, still inspiring those who see the world as he does. It was a mistake to think finding him was not as important as a wider war on terror. Finding him is key. It is almost five years since he did what he did. Get him, try him, kill him.

Issue 2: the economy. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is at new post-9/11 highs; there’s little unemployment. New home sales are up, productivity up, profits up. This is President Bush’s triumph. And yet in polls Americans don’t credit him with it. (My hunch: Americans, a deeply savvy lot, never want to tell a politician he’s doing well on the economy because their applause may lead him to feel he can shift focus to, say, colonizing Mars. Americans always name prosperity in retrospect. In real time they like to keep the pressure on.)

There are problems, challenges, changes that require thought. The biggest complaint I hear now from people who email me from all parts of the country is that they’re being worked to death, longer hours at the office, can’t see the kids. Gas prices are up and up, etc. The president should talk about the economy—not in a braying, bragging way but in an instructive, engaged way that discusses the philosophy and actions that allowed the market to do what it wants to do, grow.

Presidents always—all of them—like to say they created 50,000 jobs last month. No president has ever created a job, except in the public sector. But presidents can take steps that keep jobs from being created, and deserve credit when they don’t. And they can take steps that are helpful to job creators, and deserve credit when they do.

Did the tax cuts, at the end of the day, help the economy? Why? How? Will a change in the tax structure, or will making permanent the tax cuts, help? What impact does high federal government spending have on the economy? Where should we go on that, and why? Talk about the flow of money in America.

Issue 3: the integrity of America’s borders. That is, the right and ability to decide who comes here and when, the right and ability to make judgments based on our nation’s needs. This is both an economic issue and a national security issue; it naturally connects to issues 1 and 2.

On this, Washington is talking a lot and doing nothing.

Congress and the White House right now are like people who live in a big house who have finally noticed the kitchen is on fire. So they all meet in the living room and debate how exactly to rebuild the kitchen, what color to repaint the walls, and how to get the best deal on a new microwave. And while they are holding their discussion they’re forgetting to do the most important thing. They’re forgetting to put out the fire. You can lose a house this way. Putting out the fire in this case is closing and policing the essentially open border with Mexico—now. Close down illegal immigration, now. Then talk. (A hunch for liberals: Your views will be received with greater generosity once the air of daily crisis is removed.)

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So that’s it. Three big issues, plus whatever comes over the transom each day and demands a response. On that, the wisdom of Calvin Coolidge: When 10 problems are walking toward you, don’t feel you have to do something right away. Some of the problems will fall to the side and not reach you, some will solve themselves. Face what remains. But focus, to the extent you can, on the big three.