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The Economy's `Dolt Factor'

Robert Parry
September 9, 2001

George W. Bush’s public relations strategy in the face of a slumping economy is to convince the American people that he’s personally “concerned” about the depressed stock prices and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The word “concerned” has become a staple of Bush’s remarks, whether at Labor Day rallies or on the White House lawn. 

Bush has even declared his strong affection for the American people. During an appearance in Toledo, Ohio, on Thursday with Mexico’s President Vicente Fox, Bush announced that Fox “loves the people of Mexico, and I hope by now there’s no question that I love the people of America as well.”

Bush elaborated on his concern Friday in comments about the sharp increase in the unemployment rate to 4.9 percent. “Any American out of work is one too many Americans out of work,” Bush said.

Clearly, the younger Bush doesn’t want to make the mistake his father made when he seemed to be insensitive to the suffering of Americans during the last recession in the early 1990s. So Bush’s speechwriters have inserted frank rhetoric about the existence of an economic problem – “the slowdown is real,” Bush said Friday – combined with expressions of sympathy for the average guy – “it’s affecting too many lives, and we’re concerned about it.”

As for how the White House will address these deepening economic woes, Bush reaffirmed his commitment to his legislative agenda: maintain the $1.35 trillion tax cut, open new government lands for oil and natural gas drilling, and grant the president more power to speed trade agreements.

But Bush’s words did nothing to boost the spirits on Wall Street.

Prior to Bush’s talk, the stock market had been making a modest rally, reversing some of the heavy losses earlier in the day. As Bush spoke, however, the Dow Industrial index slipped lower again, eventually dropping about 30 more points before trading ended with the Dow at 9,605.85, matching lows not seen since March and April. The broader Standard & Poor’s index of 500 stocks fell to its lowest point in three years.

The market’s reaction to Bush’s talk was so striking that the CNBC anchor asked one of the network’s floor reporters what traders were saying. The reporter recounted how the traders simply shrugged their shoulders at Bush’s remarks, with one trader dismissing Bush’s comments as just “words.”

Hollow Ring

To other Americans, Bush’s protestations of concern may have the hollow ring of his father’s famous recitation of a talking point during the 1992 campaign, “Message: I care.” Or the younger Bush's own garbled expression of sympathy for the average Joe in the 2000 campaign: “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.”

The younger Bush might be missing another important point. During an economic slump, Americans expect more from a president than sympathy and awareness of the obvious. They want someone who can rally the nation out of its economic doldrums and instill a confident can-do spirit.

The historic benchmark is Franklin Roosevelt’s exhortation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Voters saw some of that uplifting rhetoric in presidents from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan. For boundless optimism, few presidents could match Bill Clinton who convinced many voters that he really did wake up every morning thinking about what he could do to make their lives better.

Clinton also surrounded himself with shrewd thinkers – the likes of Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers – who understood the complex three-dimensional nature of modern world economics. One could disagree with their strategies but few questioned their subtle appreciation for business intricacies as they navigated economic threats, from the “Asian flu” financial contagion to credit crises in Mexico, Russia and Brazil.

By contrast, Bush’s economic team has left even pro-Republican Wall Street grumbling over a perceived simple-mindedness. Though Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was well regarded as chairman and chief executive officer at Alcoa, he has come across as eccentric and out of touch during his seven-plus months as the Bush administration’s chief economic spokesman.

Bush Himself 

A bigger problem seems to be Bush himself. After securing the White House, he chose to talk down the economy as a way to build support for his tax cut. The negative comments rattled an already shaky stock market.

Then, when Bush tried to sound reassuring, he was hampered by his inability to speak in anything more than repetitious sound bites. He is viewed widely – even by his supporters – as lacking intellectual firepower.

Beyond U.S. borders, he is seen as a dunce who grabbed power illegitimately through the unprecedented intervention of his father’s allies on the U.S. Supreme Court – a view shared by many Americans. With the world facing a “synchronized” slowdown of all the major economies, international business leaders are unnerved to have someone regarded as a simpleton at the helm of the largest economic power, the United States.

Bush has compounded this concern about a U.S. economy drifting away from the rest of the world through a series of unilateral foreign-policy decisions. He has repudiated new international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, as well as older ones, such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in favor of a single-minded determination to press ahead with Ronald Reagan’s dream of a missile shield.

If Gore Had Won

Bush’s anti-government ideology also has prevented him from formulating a strategy in which Washington takes the lead in priming the research-and-development pump for some innovative technology that could become the next New Big Thing for the economy.

Bush and his fellow free-marketers insist that innovation comes from the private sector, not from the government, and that the government should just get out of the way. This summer, Bush personified that attitude when he devoted nearly a month to vacationing on his ranch in Texas, recharging his batteries.

By contrast, if Al Gore had won the presidency, he might well have spent the summer rolling up his sleeves and working on some new technological endeavor. Gore – a prime mover in convincing Congress to finance the Internet’s infrastructure in the 1980s – had wanted to invest a chunk of the federal budget surplus in the next generation of alternative energy sources as well as in vehicles that would be less harmful to the environment.

One almost could picture Gore out with a road crew replacing old-fashioned asphalt with solar panels on the nation’s highways. But Gore didn't get that chance.

After Bush moved into the White House, he bet the surplus on his tax cut, pulled out of the Kyoto agreement and called for greater exploitation of fossil fuels.

'Captain Kirk'

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd caught the mood of Bush’s retrograde era.

“Nothing leaps ahead,” Dowd wrote. “Power clings to the passé, retreating from the cutting edge, running safe TV shows, choosing scientific stasis. Everything – from Washington’s trashed international treaties to the coal-and-drill Bush environmental policy to Hollywood’s tedious remakes and endless parade of World War II and Cinderella-themed movies – looks backward, not forward.

“Our missile shield, more science fiction than science, has become a metaphor for our passive, defensive, retro crouch. In the name of Captain Kirk, how did this happen? How did we end up charting a course to timidly go where every man has been before?” [NYT, Aug. 19, 2001]

While agreeing with her point, some of Dowd’s readers might have found her professed confusion about how this happened a touch disingenuous. After all, a key reason the nation is going through this reverse time warp is that pundits and columnists such as Dowd obsessed endlessly over Gore’s clunky personality and exaggerated his supposed exaggerations, while giving Bush and Cheney a relatively free ride. [See "Protecting Bush & Cheney," Oct. 16, 2000]

The price for that media imbalance is now being paid. Because of last fall's events, the United States is led by a man who has shown very limited ability to grasp the complexities of the economic challenges ahead. Worse yet, he is a man who inspires little public confidence and cannot be expected to rally the American people with his words.

As is typical, the heaviest burden is falling on the poorer elements of American society, such as the African-American community and other minority groups whose unemployment rates are skyrocketing. The pundits will feel the pain mostly in their shrinking portfolios, as stock prices, too, retreat to levels of yesteryear.

An economy struggling to overcome a devastated technology sector and a weakening consumer sector also must overcome what might be called the Dolt Factor, a stomach-turning awareness that the leader of the most important economy in the world doesn’t have the skills or wisdom to point a way out.

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