Anybody Seen George Lately?


By Richard S. Dunham The economic news is coming fast and furious these days. In Genoa, Italy, leaders of the major industrialized nations are meeting for their annual G-8 summit. Tops on the agenda: stabilizing a global financial system seemingly on the precipice.

In the U.S., corporate profits are down, layoffs are up. And on July 24, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan again takes the witness stand on Capitol Hill, struggling to convince Wall Street that the central bank's aggressive rate-cutting will have the intended effect -- higher growth, lower inflation.

Plenty to ponder. So what's missing in these headlines? Strangely, the President of the United States. With a tip of the Stetson to Ted Kennedy, who asked a similar question at the 1988 Democratic convention, one might wonder today, when it comes to the economy: "Where is George?"

THE CLINTON MODEL. The U.S. Presidency is arguably the most influential bully pulpit in the world. But George W. Bush definitely hasn't -- in the lingo of another Teddy, Teddy Roosevelt -- done a bully job on economic leadership. Instead, he has used his pulpit to promote pet causes such as funneling federal dollars to religious organizations that provide social services.

Think about it. Bush has given precious few speeches on the state of the economy. Instead, he has focused on political initiatives such as his tax cut or, on rare occasion, trade liberalization. Sixty percent of Americans tell the Pew Research Center that their personal financial situation today is "fair" or "poor," but the President rarely reassures nervous workers.

Bush doesn't need to be another FDR and caution against fear itself. But it sort of makes you long for the smooth-talking days of Bill Clinton, who at least felt people's pain.

TEAM PARALYSIS? Imagine this scene: Clinton visiting with laid-off manufacturing workers or high-tech casualties, calmly reassuring them that the nation's economic fundamentals remain strong and that the government will help them find new jobs. The current President hasn't done anything remotely like that. Where is George?

Whatever you may think of the Clinton Administration's policy choices, you have to admit that Rubin, Summers, & Co. (that is, Clinton Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers) were proactive in dealing with potential economic bumps, both domestic and international. At this point, Team Bush seems strangely paralyzed over how to proceed.

Should White House spinners say things are awful and that the problems were caused by Clinton -- like they did when they wanted Congress to enact a huge tax cut and allow oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness? Should they say prosperity is just around the corner if only we hold down federal spending and give government grants to churches, synagogues, and mosques? Or is the best strategy to just ignore macroeconomic matters and hope the problems solve themselves -- like with gasoline prices?

DOOMED NOTIONS. Often, it seems as if there is little coherence, focus, or visibility in the Bush economic strategy. One person on the hot seat is Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. He seems to be getting mixed reviews from the wise men (or is it wise guys?) on Wall Street. Only one person can articulate the Administration's approach. Where is George?

He may be a little gun-shy. When Bush tries to delve into economic issues, trouble often follows. He spoke at the World Bank about the need to focus on grants to impoverished nations rather than loans. It sounded compassionate and reasonable. The response was polite, but the plan was quickly marked as a nonstarter by Congress and international lending institutions.

When it comes to international commerce, Bush talks passionately about the need for liberalized trade. And yet he's willing to back a proposal by House Republicans to expand Presidential trade-promotion authority that is so extreme it has no chance of ever becoming law. By eschewing compromise for confrontation, the White House could end up hurting U.S. exporters in the short run. At a tenuous economic time, that's not a smart move.

REASSURE US. So what's the President to do? For starters, tell us what's right about the economy, what's wrong about the economy, and how to fix it. Bush does have a legitimate gripe about the Media Elite: Even when he gave a thoughtful speech on global issues, like the one at the World Bank on July 17, he got scant coverage. One reason: The press corps these days seems more intent on following California Congressman Gary Condit's private life than President Bush's public one.

Still, Bush hasn't reassured the nation -- or even focused its attention on a policy prescription. The Pew Research Center reports that nearly twice as many Americans closely followed the First Daughters' recent run-in with the law than the President's first trip to Europe.

Perhaps more people would pay attention if the White House delivered a message of compassion for those hurt by the economic slowdown, and articulated a masterplan for turning things around. At the very least, they would finally know where George is. Dunham is White House correspondent for BusinessWeek. Follow his column every week, only on BW Online


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