Bush's task: Turn back the bears
President presses for Congress to finish corporate-reform package by Friday, as White House takes heat on economy.
WASHINGTON — Wall Street's wild ride has presented President Bush with a problem that has confounded many of his modern predecessors: restoring public confidence in essentially uncontrollable financial markets.
For Bush, the good news is that chief executives who suffer through a stock slump early in their terms usually recover, politically speaking. Who remembers today that the Standard & Poor's 500 fell more than 12 percent during the Reagan administration's first year and a half?
The bad news is that the White House response to date has been stumbling, say some economic experts. Its message has been muddied, and the Bush economic team has at times seemed less impressive than its national security counterpart.
"There's a sense that the administration is playing catch-up with all this," says Martin Baily, a chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors under President Clinton.
Not that anyone's saying it's an easy job. Much of what influences market behavior is beyond any president's control. Rousing rhetoric from the bully pulpit only goes so far.
Bush can keep reminding investors about the generally healthy economy, but he can't offer assurances that more bad corporate news isn't about to break.
"What people really want to know is that the accounting scandals are over, and we won't know that [for some time]," says Kevin Hassett, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
Bush's big problem so far, say analysts, has been twofold: His proposed solutions for what ails Wall Street have changed from day to day, and his aides have arguably mismanaged the way in which his message has been communicated.
Thus, in his Wall Street speech in early July, the president took a punitive approach. Longer prison terms for corporate malfeasance was one of his centerpiece proposals.
By this weekend, however, Bush's proposed crackdown on corporate bad apples received only passing reference in his radio address on what he termed "economic security."
Bush focused instead on Congress: specifically, what lawmakers need to do at this critical juncture. He called on the Senate and House to agree on corporate-reform legislation before their August recess, despite the administration's past hesitance about such a bill. He urged passage of a terror-insurance bill and promotion of economic security by fiscal constraint.
"While the economy is growing stronger, confidence in our free-enterprise system is being tested," said Bush.
And while the message shifts, the pictures look bad. Televised reports of Bush's speeches on the economy are now accompanied on many channels by news crawlers that charts the ups and downs of the Dow as the president speaks.
On one level, this is surely unfair: No chief executive can control the minute-to-minute movement of a stock market that trades billions of shares.
But the White House could have avoided this juxtaposition relatively easily, say some critics. Keep Bush's Wall Street rhetoric confined to hours when the market is closed, for one thing. Make sure neither he nor his economic team talk about specific market levels.
The Clinton administration, for instance, would likely have turned to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin under similar circumstances, says former Clinton official Martin Baily.
As a former Wall Street chieftain himself, Mr. Rubin knew just the kind of rhetoric markets like: vague and reassuring not too specific.
"He would talk about the forces driving markets, the proneness of markets to go up and down, the underlying strength of fundamentals, things like that," says Mr. Baily.
Bush's Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, a blunt former Alcoa CEO, inspires little confidence by comparison, say many in Washington.
Bush "has been hamstrung by the fact that Treasury Secretary O'Neill is so weak," says Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "President Clinton would never have exposed himself to the kind of circumstances [Bush] suffered when he was talking about the market last week. Clinton would have sent Secretary Rubin out."
Still, it could be worse. Bush could be Ronald Reagan. The Great Communicator suffered both a stock dive and a recession early in his term in office.
Of course, Mr. Reagan recovered to win a smashing second term victory and that's the point. In political terms, early troubles with the stock market don't tend to drag presidents down.
The S&P 500 fell by more than 23 percent in Richard Nixon's first 18 months in office, for instance, and he similarly won a big reelection victory. Today, people remember the Clinton years as a time of economic boom or economic bubble but in fact, stocks were only so-so his first year and a half.
Then there's the substance question: Will anything Bush has proposed actually work, in the sense of helping restore investor confidence?
After all, confidence is an ephemeral thing. As Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said in congressional testimony last week, "You don't reverse investor ... confidence overnight."
Actions proposed by both Bush and Congress are unlikely to hurt the market, and could well help, say experts. And Washington is almost sure to see lots of legislative change, combining both Bush's "rotten apples" approach and a broader attack on perceived systemic abuses, which is laid out in the Senate version of the corporate-responsibility bill, now in a House-Senate conference.
But then again, the markets may correct themselves before legislative changes have a chance to take effect.
Firms that misled investors with funny numbers have been mercilessly handled by the markets witness yesterday's bankruptcy filing by WorldCom. Over time, it is this discipline, and not longer prison terms for certain white-collar crimes, that may be the best defense against the Enrons of the future.