Bush sends early pro-business signals

Industry leaders are viewing him as most corporate-friendly president since Reagan.

There's no framed Harvard MBA hanging in the Oval Office. Nor is it to be found in the president's private study.

But as America's first chief executive with a master's in business administration, George W. Bush doesn't have to display his degree to prove his corporate credentials. Just look at what he's done for business since arriving in Washington.

In less than two months, President Bush has taken so many corporate-friendly positions that manufacturing and service-industry leaders are viewing him as the most pro-business president since Ronald Reagan - certainly more so than Bush's predecessor, who, as a deficit-buster and free-trader, was no slouch himself.

"There's a new wind blowing through town, and it's a very positive one," says Michael Baroody, executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers here. "All of the early signals are very encouraging."

Those signals include the president's support for bankruptcy legislation - pushed by credit-card companies but opposed by consumer advocates, and vetoed by Bill Clinton. They include his move last week to head off an airline strike, as well as this week's decision to renege on his campaign promise to limit carbon-dioxide emissions at power plants.

Of course, for every smile on the face of a business lobbyist there are scowls on those who feel they've been wronged by the president's actions - especially labor leaders, environmentalists, and consumer groups.

Mr. Baroody's "new wind" is more like an icy chill for Steven Rosenthal, political director of the AFL-CIO. "It's been a very vehement, vicious, anti-union first 50 days," he says. Alarmed, the nation's umbrella labor group is gearing up for the 2002 election now, planning fliers, leafleting, and a door-to-door campaign "to expose George Bush for what he is," Mr. Rosenthal explains.

Even though one-third of union voters backed Bush in November, the president and his party could face a backlash if they're not careful, Rosenthal warns. Particularly galling to labor was White House support as Congress last week rolled back new Clinton rules on ergonomic safeguards in the workplace, as well as the president's intervention in the Northwest Airlines labor negotiations.

While President Clinton also intervened in an airline strike, he did not do so until after the strike began. Bush, on the other hand, acted before the negotiating deadline ran out - removing the very pressure that can spur an agreement. And he warned he would not allow strikes to develop at other airlines where negotiations have been taking place.

Political observers say it should come as no surprise that this is shaping up to be a pro-business administration. It simply reflects the Republican hands-off philosophy in a market-driven economy - a philosophy embraced more by Clinton than any other modern Democratic president.

But traditional Democratic constituents acted as a brake on Clinton's pro-business leanings, says former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. "Republicans have absolutely no reason to listen to organized labor, to environmentalists, to women's groups, and to other parts of the traditional Democratic constituency," he says. "They are unconstrained."

Certainly, the business community seems to be pulling this administration - full of former CEOs - far more easily in its direction. The decision to back away from the power-plant emissions promise, for instance, was not a White House initiative but a response to pressure from coal and oil lobbyists and Republican lawmakers.

Former Secretary Reich calls this "payback time," but industry leaders simply say they are finally working with a White House that shares their philosophy.

Still, says George Edwards, a presidential expert at Texas A&M University, there are a number of instances where Bush has distanced himself from the corporate world. The president's tax plan, for example, focuses on individuals - not business. Neither

is he writing a blank check for the defense industry, as Reagan did. And he's decided not to try to reverse Clinton's land set-asides.

Indeed, the White House maintains there are much larger issues involved in some of its recent decisions. With the nation facing an "energy crisis," as the president puts it, it can't now afford to restrict power plants. And with the faltering economy, Bush says, the country can't risk major airline strikes.

Still, the president faces a difficult balancing act, to make sure he's not appearing to ignore the concerns of American workers.

Ted Ehrhart, a Northwest Airlines mechanic from Atlanta, drove 11 hours to come to Washington this week to protest Bush's intervention on the strike. A lifelong Republican who voted for Bush, Mr. Ehrhart is seriously considering switching his vote next time.

Before the election, he would always defend Bush when talking politics with Democratic colleagues. Now, he says, he feels ashamed: "All these guys are saying, 'I told you so, Republicans are anti-labor.' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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