WHO would be in Brian Cowen's shoes now? His predecessor governed during days of unprecedented plenty, allowing him the freedom to travel the country opening hotels and GAA pitches. In contrast, Cowen has an impossible job. Unemployment is soaring. Tax revenues have collapsed. The banking system will require billions upon billions of exchequer funding that the state doesn't have. The electorate is seething with discontent.

It is possible to make a decent case for what Cowen – in tandem with his finance minister Brian Lenihan – has done over the past 18 months. The taoiseach is often accused of tribalism but the decisions his government has made – cutting social welfare, twice reducing public sector pay, reducing spending by €4bn in last year's budget, bailing out the banking system, introducing Nama and so on – were certainly not in the political interests of Fianna Fáil.

Cowen has a strong claim to make that he is putting the country before his government to such an extent that he is effectively guaranteeing it will not be re-elected.

The problem is that he seems almost doggedly determined not to sell that message. Cowen seems to have an antipathy towards the media; he seems not to particularly care what they write. He is not interested in spin or the politics of perception and is concerned only with matters of substance.

In many ways, that is refreshing, particularly after the government-by-focus-group approach of Bertie Ahern for the previous 11 years. In many ways, it is the best approach for the country during a time of crisis. But perception is hugely important in politics and, for better or worse, a taoiseach has to play the game.

Cowen is only human in feeling frustrated when the opposition plays to the gallery and accuses him of bailing out property developers with Nama, or says it won't put a cent into Anglo Irish Bank, which is simply impossible. But as a politician he can't afford to take the view that such opinions are beneath contempt and not worth responding to.

It's too much to expect the kind of 'fireside chat' approach of Roosevelt during the Great Depression in the United States, but Cowen needs to bring more people with him. He has shown fleeting glimpses that he can do that – his speech to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce last year being the most obvious example – but they are far too rare.

The suspicion lingers that, whatever about his tenure as minister for finance, history will offer a far kinder assessment of Cowen's reign as taoiseach than recent opinion polls do. But that will be too late for Fianna Fáil in the next general election.

Being taoiseach in this environment is enormously pressurised but Cowen adds to that pressure himself. Last week's cabinet reshuffle was a case in point. Allowing speculation to build over three weeks and then coming up with such a limp reshuffle was political madness. Why did he say he'd have a reshuffle at all? He could have argued that there was no case for it, given that the cabinet had been in place for only two years.

The new personnel choices were extremely conservative. It might be only perception (that word again) but there was a need to show that new blood was being introduced.

The "reconfiguration" of departments was beyond comprehension. If you are going to make changes, there's no point in tinkering around the edges. Where was the radical thinking? Mary Coughlan's situation was handled quite adroitly – although whether she is the right person for education is moot – but apart from that it's hard to see what benefit there is from these changes, either to the country or the perception of the government.

Fairly or unfairly, the perception of the reshuffle is that Cowen was attempting to keep the government in power for the next two years and effectively throwing in the towel on the next general election. But, not for the first time, that conservatism has come back to haunt Cowen, angering his parliamentary party and raising once again the old questions about his suitability and even desire for the top job.

There isn't a TD in the Dáil – in opposition or in government – who doesn't think Brian Cowen is a better politician than he appeared to be last week. But it's long, long past time he showed it.

Performance: 4/10