Opinion polls show President Bush's favorable rating remains high, about 72 percent. But the same polls indicate the public is growing uneasy about his handling of the economy. This has the potential to replay what happened to the first President Bush, who was riding high in the polls following the Gulf War but was brought low and lost re-election because of economic decline.
This President Bush should act immediately to demonstrate beyond rhetoric that he feels the pain of people who've lost their jobs and retirement money due to the greedy behavior of a few CEOs. If that sounds somewhat Clintonian, it worked for Bill Clinton. Bush also must act quickly to rebuild confidence in the markets so investors will again start buying stock.
The testimony of Secretary of the Army Thomas E. White last week before the Senate Commerce Committee revealed how out of touch the Republican establishment is with public opinion about corporate scandals. A former Enron executive, White made $12 million on the sale of Enron stock before taking his Army job. White told senators he didn't know how much money he'd earned during his 11 years at Enron. He allowed it was more than $20 million but couldn't recall if it was over $30 million.
"I'd have to add it up," White told Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D).
Democrats on the committee said White's testimony wasn't credible and they were right. How many people would not notice a difference of $10 million in their bank account?
Asked by Dorgan if he'd considered returning some of the money he earned at Enron, White said no, "because I don't consider the gains for running the business in a responsible way to be ill-gotten." So much for compassionate conservatism.
President Bush should ask all of those who made huge profits from Enron and other corrupt corporations to donate money to a fund that will help those who lost their jobs because of corporate malfeasance. There may not be enough money to help everyone, but such a gesture from White and even Vice President Dick Cheney, the former Halliburton CEO, would get the public's attention and show that Republicans have a heart.
The president also should travel the country and meet with CEOs who operate their businesses with integrity. If he wants to change the political dynamic and deflect Democrats' political barbs, he might visit people like Truett Cathy, founder and chairman of the fast food chain, Chick-fil-A. On Chick-fil-A's Web site (www.chick-fil-a.com), the official statement of corporate purpose says the company exists "to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A." The company invests in scholarships, character-building programs for kids, foster care and other community services.
Legatus is an organization for Catholic CEOs (www.legatus.org). Founder and Chairman Tom Monaghan, former owner of Domino's Pizza and the Detroit Tigers baseball franchise, heads a fellowship whose members seek to express their Catholic faith in business and their personal lives.
Such efforts (there are many others) demonstrate how businesses can reflect the good character of their leaders, instead of the greed shown among executives at Enron and WorldCom.
The corporate scandals devastating Wall Street are serious and potentially damaging to Republican hopes of regaining a Senate majority and maintaining control of the House. They could seriously damage the president's re-election hopes in 2004. He must act now and stop re-acting to events.
The cause of the stock market's decline is psychological, not substantive. Most experts, including Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, have noted that the leading economic indicators remain good. It is public confidence that has been damaged. This president helped restore confidence after Sept. 11. He rallied the nation to a unity unknown since World War II. If he can rebuild economic confidence, he will be politically untouchable by the Democrats. If he can't, his party will be vulnerable in the fall election and he could easily follow the political fate of his father.
The smart boys (and girls) in the White House should convince the president to start hanging out with the good CEOs and let their example inspire the rest of the country to invest in companies worthy of trust and confidence.