Mr. Bush Gets (More) Advice
THE president is looking uncomfortable these days. The economic recovery sputters; George and Barbara took to a mall the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year, and bought some socks, to prime the Holiday consumer spending pump. The president hasn't launched a successful war in 11 months. An ocean storm washed through his Maine retreat, so he has to take his relaxation at Camp David. His approval rating has been cut almost in half since February, and he is losing voterconfidence on the economy. His closest colleagues are rich; his latest remarks on unemployment and the stock market plunge were made from a golf course - hardly a link with the common man. The kibbitzers are out in force. The Humpty Dumpty men appear on MacNeil/Lehrer: Political writers and commentators, the supernumeraries of presidential opera, are again in demand; Sovietologists and military strategists, the supers of detente and battle, are back in the Rolodex. What should George do? Not a lot right away. He should stop picking silly fights with Congress. The public cares less about who broke things than about having them fixed. The blame-Congress tactic for getting reelected is the wrong wrench for repairing the economy. Pay attention to this week's House hearings on tax cuts. Set up some markers for signs of recovery or the lack thereof, and have your official advisers propose a range of remedies. Everyone knows he's a Republican and inclined against intervention. Michael Boskin, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, observes that Washington has, on average, applied some 1.5 percent of gross national product in fiscal stimulus to lift the economy out of recession since World War II. That would be about $75 billion in today's dollars - tough to find with today's deficit. The new unemployment-benefits extension and highway bill, which Bush sought to minimize but in the end signed, will help. Charles Schultze, a former economic council chairman, suggests no q uick fix but a longer-range plan that would shift defense cut savings to projects like infrastructure repair. How would such proposals fit into a long-range plan? What about worker retraining? Education surely must be related to future prosperity. If philosophically he doesn't want the federal government to do it, what can be done to help communities help themselves? Bush can't walk away from the economy as if it were a golf course hole he doesn't want to play. He doesn't want to repeat Jimmy Carter's summer 1979 parade of wise men visiting Camp David to revive a presidency, as has been proposed. Bush is nowhere near the psychological collapse that exercise signaled. He has a lesser image challenge - the assumption that rich men don't suffer in hard times the same as the rest of us. Bush gets annoyed at what he calls "the vision thing." He prefers action to reflection. His gift is for companionship, for building relationships that he can draw on in a pinch. And yet he keeps getting bogged down in the competitive culture along the Potomac, as if anyone cares what he and the Congress think of one another. Max De Pree, a Michigan industrialist who thinks a lot about leadership, says it can be as important to consider where you've failed as where you've succeeded. Success, like a butterfly, is hard to grasp without crushing it. At our most successful we can become arrogant, inflexible. Success has to do with becoming, De Pree says: What we do is secondary to what we want to be. Success has to do with faithfulness. Some thread of values has to lead through our actions. Too often the country's leaders act as if what counts is what works; they profess not what is right, but what is practical. What does Bush want America to be? George Bush is hardly a failure. (Neither was Carter, really.) Bush still has half the country behind him, and he can do a lot with that. Add a little humor, some reflection aloud about what he thinks the country needs from him at this time, a greater comfort level with skeptics, a promise of a binding and not another bruising White House campaign next year, and he'll offer his would-be advisers less to wag about. r Richard J. Cattani is editor of the Monitor.