As the stock market wallows in its biggest funk in four years, the Bush administration's chief economic spokesman, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, is strangely silent.
O'Neill's lack of reassuring words to the public at a time of economic uncertainty, as millions of horrified Americans watch their nest eggs shrivel, underscores the perception that he is disconnected, analysts said.
And that doesn't inspire confidence among investors, consumers or businesses, whose faith in corporate leaders has been badly shaken, they said. If that makes consumers and businesses less willing to spend and invest, the economy's recovery could be slowed.
"I think the perception of a lack of a commanding presence in economic policy has hurt the administration," said Stephen Cecchetti, economics professor at Ohio State University. "There is no one who can stand up and calm everyone's nerves. Rubin had that."
Robert Rubin, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs who held the treasury post under President Clinton, was praised by some on Wall Street as the best treasury secretary since the nation's first, Alexander Hamilton.
Critics said O'Neill can't seem to get it right, that he is either too enthusiastic about the economy's prospects or too ho-hum.
His unscripted utterances, meanwhile, have occasionally rattled rather than soothed markets _ and even made White House aides nervous.
During a stock slide in May, O'Neill was in Africa with rock singer Bono _ calling attention to the problems of the world's poorest continent _ when he got irked at questions about his effectiveness.
"If people don't like what I'm doing, I don't give a damn," he was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "I could be sailing around on a yacht or driving around the country."
The former chief of Alcoa Corp., O'Neill was a corporate titan worth millions before he took the Treasury helm.
President Bush has expressed confidence in his Treasury secretary.
"He's doing a fine job," Bush said Monday.
Asked whether O'Neill should stay in his job, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., responded: "I think the president needs to look at his top economic officials. We need people who engender confidence and faith among the American people."
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, dismissed Democratic criticism as a backhanded compliment: "They attack everything they fear. The fact is, if they're attacking Paul O'Neill, I would take that as my first evidence that they think he's doing a good job."
If the stock market's woes persist and slow the recovery, Republicans could be hurt the most when Americans go to the polls this fall, experts said.
"When the economy is good, the president's party tends to do relatively well. When it is bad, the president's party can go through the floor," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
If Republicans get walloped in the midterm elections, Sabato predicted, Bush would shake up his Cabinet and O'Neill probably would be the first to go.
When Wall Street reopened after being forced to shut down by the Sept. 11 terror attacks, O'Neill turned into an economic cheerleader, predicting Sept. 17 that the Dow Jones industrial average could approach all-time highs within 12 to 18 months.
As the stock market melted down that day, O'Neill declared, "The people who sold will be sorry that they did it." He also pooh-poohed the idea that the economy could be headed into a recession. It did.
O'Neill had taken the opposite approach in the spring of 2001. Following the first trading day after the Dow Jones index suffered its worst week of declines in 11 years, O'Neill offered this comment to millions of investors who watched their stock portfolios plummet: "Markets go up and markets go down."