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Snow is loyal, but that may not be enough

As Treasury secretaries go, John W. Snow has had a relatively smooth run. He hasn't strayed from the Bush administration line, committed serious gaffes, presided over recessions, triggered financial market turmoil or gotten caught in a major scandal. So why does Snow's job security appear so precarious?
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As Treasury secretaries go, John W. Snow has had a relatively smooth run. He hasn't strayed from the Bush administration line, committed serious gaffes, presided over recessions, triggered financial market turmoil or gotten caught in a major scandal.

So why does Snow's job security appear so precarious and his performance such a frequent target of discontent at the White House?

The question arose anew this week when President Bush gave Snow a less-than-ringing endorsement after media reports that the incoming White House chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, wanted to find a new Treasury secretary as part of a broader shake-up. That episode hearkened back to a similar series of events 16 months ago, when Bush aides hinted that Snow would leave and then waited 10 days to consider possible replacements before the president finally asked him to stay.

Explanations for the treatment of Snow differ, but this much is clear: While his feisty predecessor Paul H. O'Neill was fired in 2002 for voicing doubts in public and private about the president's policies, the genial Snow has hewed strictly to the White House's talking points. That, ironically, may have been his undoing: He has been such a loyal salesman that he has come across as ineffective in the eyes of some top Bush aides -- especially Bolten -- according to former administration policymakers, one of whom said, "Josh is definitely not a big fan" of Snow's.

"I lay some of the blame on the fact that he has followed the script too well, because when you do that it sounds like you don't have anything else to say," said Pamela F. Olson, a former assistant Treasury secretary who worked under Snow and considers herself a booster. "Most questions deserve a nuanced response, but John Snow has been a good mouthpiece even when he would personally have been better off if he hadn't, and the president would have been better off too. But he has followed the instructions he has been given."

Public discontent
Poll data show that the administration's sales job on its economic record has hardly been a raging success. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, 59 percent of Americans rate the economy as "not so good" or "poor."

That is not for lack of trying by Snow and his team. The secretary regularly travels around the country to talk up the administration's achievements, and this week nearly every top department official is doing the same, even some whose jobs don't typically involve such responsibilities. Treasury General Counsel Arnold I. Havens, for example, is scheduled to visit Dublin, Ohio, today "to discuss the U.S. economy and President Bush's agenda for continued strong growth and job creation," according to the department. Timothy D. Adams, the undersecretary for international affairs, is addressing financial analysts in Houston today on similar subjects, and Assistant Secretary for Management Sandra L. Pack is speaking at a sports center in Lincoln, Neb.

Nor is Snow entirely bereft of good material to make his case. The economy grew a brisk 4.2 percent in 2004 and 3.5 percent last year, inflation remains low and the unemployment rate has fallen to 4.8 percent. Those figures have not silenced critics, who highlight the lack of wage gains for working Americans during the Bush years. Snow counters by arguing that with unemployment low and the economy continuing to expand, "we may be at a tipping point" for a wage increase that would outstrip the rising prices of many necessities, notably energy.

But whatever the merits of Snow's PR efforts, he has also been hampered by the widespread perception that, like O'Neill, he plays a much less important role in policymaking than many Treasury secretaries in previous administrations. During the Clinton years, Treasury secretaries Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence H. Summers were powerhouses on both domestic and international issues, as was James A. Baker III when he headed the department under President Ronald Reagan. But in the past five years the White House has dominated major economic decisions, according to many insiders.

One former top Treasury official recalled yesterday that Bolten, then deputy White House chief of staff, told senior Cabinet agency officials at a meeting a couple of years ago that the White House was interested in their policy proposals and that they should send them to councils coordinated at the White House level. "It was very positively put," said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he doesn't want to offend friends in the administration. "But the bottom line was: 'We're in charge of policy. You're not.' "

More clout
The Treasury Department has gained some clout recently with the addition of Deputy Secretary Robert M. Kimmitt, a former top aide to Baker with long Washington experience. In the international realm it is establishing itself as an aggressive player under Adams, who held a top policy role in Bush's reelection campaign. "The Treasury, as the president has said, is an important part of the economic policymaking team," said Tony Fratto, the assistant secretary for public affairs, who declined to comment on speculation about Snow's departure.

Snow, who has a doctorate in economics among other advanced degrees, is by no means disengaged on important issues. He was heavily involved in negotiating with Congress recently on changes in pension laws, tax regulations and other subjects that come under Treasury's purview, according to a top Senate Republican staffer. "He's got a lot to offer, and he had done his homework," the staffer said. "I think part of the problem is that the White House plays it up themselves that he's the spokesman and policy gets made inside the White House. I think it hurts them, but it's their choice."

Snow's main problem may be that with Bush's poll ratings down, the administration has to bring in fresh faces in high places, said Kevin A. Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He noted that it wouldn't be easy to replace the secretaries of state or defense without raising doubts about Bush's Iraq policy.

"Snow's a great guy, the economy's doing well, and he hasn't done anything wrong," Hassett said. Snow could be an effective spokesman, he said, "if he was the one who had the authority to speak and make policy prescriptions. But they have had their statements coming from the White House from the beginning."