The glaring imbalance between President Bush's national security team and his economic team had been obvious ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, if not before. One team worked effectively; the other did not.
Still, the sacking of Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill and chief economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey is far more than the story of two senior officials who, as White House advisers have explained it, could not effectively communicate the president's economic policies.
Whatever shortcomings O'Neill and Lindsey may have had, their abrupt dismissals point to questions about presidential leadership and the way economic and domestic policy have been developed in this administration. Since Sept. 11, Bush has been focused and decisive in waging a global war on terrorism. He has been far less sure-footed in handling the economy.
His $1.35 trillion tax cut has yet to make an appreciable impact on the sluggish economy. A wave of corporate scandals put the administration on the defensive and allowed the Democrats to push through Congress changes in accounting regulations that the White House initially resisted. A mid-summer economic summit in Texas failed to produce good reviews, let alone signal a redirection in policy. And all along, Bush and his team have struggled to make an effective case on behalf of their policies.
"The bottom line," said a Republican who has opposed the administration on economic issues, "is that the deepest problem here is the president's own policy. They can have all the salesmen they want, but it starts with the overall fiscal and tax policies of this administration."
If Bush has lost confidence in his two most senior economic advisers, then the natural question to ask is whether he has also lost confidence in the policy he has embraced for three years, since he unveiled his proposal for a big tax cut -- most of it aimed at taxpayers in the upper brackets -- during the 2000 presidential campaign.
O'Neill had nothing to do with the creation of that policy. Lindsey did, but in concert with others -- principally Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist and now White House senior adviser, and Josh Bolten, the campaign's policy director and now White House deputy chief of staff. Both of them have escaped criticism in this upheaval.
Bush is moving quickly to fill the vacancies on his economic team, with former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. chairman Stephen Friedman slated to take Lindsey's White House post and CSX Corp. Chairman John W. Snow, a veteran of the Ford administration, selected to replace O'Neill at Treasury. But they will have little time to put their imprint on a new Bush economic plan.
Anyone asking members of Bush's economic team about the White House's post-Sept. 11 focus quickly discovered that the president was far more attentive to the war on terrorism than to the economy. The economic summit in August was designed to send public signals that he was on top of the economy, but some of his advisers also hoped the day-long session would focus Bush's attention more directly on economic issues.
Bush's lack of attention to the economy did not hurt him politically during the midterm elections, in part because he shifted public attention to Iraq and terrorism but also because Democrats offered no coherent alternative. "It allowed the economic issues in the midterm election to be secondary to security," said a Democratic strategist. "He [Bush] hasn't had any real political push to change the economic team."
Now the risks of continued economic weakness and a more effective critique from Democrats in the upcoming presidential campaign have forced him to deal with an imbalance in his administration that was evident to outsiders from the start.
"All the people on the national security team had national reputations, senior positions and were certainly accepted within the establishment as the height of a seasoned, experienced team," said James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser to President Bill Clinton. "On the economic side, these were unknowns. None of them had national reputations."
One way to view Friday's upheaval in the administration's economic team is to conclude that O'Neill was never as good at his job as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld are at theirs. Nor was Lindsey a match for national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in the role of White House coordinator.
But though they are effective, Bush's national security advisers hardly are a smoothly operating team. Powell has waged a highly public war against Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, particularly over the administration's policy toward Iraq, despite the president's well-known preference for team play, no leaks and public displays of loyalty.
The internal squabbling among the president's economic advisers and O'Neill's penchant for wandering off the reservation with off-hand comments, which White House officials described as contributing to the president's loss of confidence in his team, pale in comparison to the high-profile battles within the national security team.
The difference is that the national security team, however fractious, produced a policy that has drawn strong public support. The economic team has not.
On national security policy, Bush has demonstrated flexibility that he has not shown on economic policy. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he turned around his administration and refocused the country on new goals. His economic policy has changed little in three years, even though the economy has gone from boom to recession and now sustained sluggishness.
White House officials have been quick to credit Bush as the key national security decision-maker in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks -- steely, resolute and decisive in a time of crisis. But his skill in leading an often-divided foreign policy team contrasts sharply with his record of managing his economic team, which has neither produced bold, new ideas nor helped restore public confidence.
Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice and Cheney are the unrivaled principals of the president's national security team, backed up by strong and able deputies. O'Neill, Lindsey and the other principals in the economic sphere have had plenty of competition in a White House where Rove's political operation plays a dominant role in policymaking and where Bolten enjoys enormous confidence from the president.
Additionally, Rice coordinates foreign policy through the long-established structure of the National Security Council. On economic policy, Bush largely jettisoned the National Economic Council structure established under Clinton, leaving Lindsey, whose organizational skills were never his strongest suit, with a much weaker framework in which to operate.
The imbalance between Bush's economic and national security teams is also an outgrowth of the presidential campaign. Bush's lack of experience in foreign affairs required him to recruit national security advisers such as Powell and Rumsfeld. Bush owed far less to his economic advisers, who were not crucial in giving him political or policy heft during the campaign.
Powell provided Bush with a political shield during the 2000 campaign as the secretary of state in waiting. That has made Powell virtually invulnerable in office, despite the battles with Rumsfeld and Cheney. O'Neill, Lindsey and other economic team members arrived without reputations as national policymakers and never established their credibility in office.
Bush remains saddled with an economic plan that was drawn up just before the GOP primaries and caucuses began in 2000. As a result, political as much as economic considerations have shaped the centerpiece of the plan: an extensive tax cut.
Fears of an attack from rival Steve Forbes, an ardent tax-cutter from the conservative wing of the party, pushed Bush to demonstrate his own credentials as a tax-cutter, and the campaign's desire to portray Bush as a compassionate conservative prompted the inclusion of provisions aimed at lower-income workers that pushed up its cost. Long before O'Neill arrived, the Bush team had little success countering criticism of the plan as one that tilted heavily toward the wealthiest Americans.
White House officials often claim that the president is the administration's most effective public advocate. That may be true on terrorism issues, but it has not been the case on the economy.
Beyond that, administration officials recognize they will need effective surrogates for the president in the months ahead, people who can make the case for his policies on talk shows, to Wall Street and to the public.
The consciously brutal dismissals of O'Neill and Lindsey -- announced curtly in a news release largely shorn of the generous praise that accompanies such changes -- signaled that Bush did not believe his two top advisers were capable of that.
The dismissals showed a side of Bush's personality rarely visible to the public.
Whether his decisiveness in changing personnel signals a new toughness in demanding a redirection in policy or a revamping of the process through which the administration makes economic policy is a far different question.