Bank peril should alert Bush Newswatch...on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

January 08, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There is no connection between the crisis in the Persian Gulf and the one in banking in New England. But the fact they are happening at the same time should be a reminder to President Bush that he has more on his plate than Saddam Hussein.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the president made a point of demonstrating that he would not allow himself to be bent out of shape by Saddam. That thinking was the reason Bush insisted on continuing to play golf at Kennebunkport last August while dispatching United States forces to protect Saudi Arabia. The White House was well aware of the sad history of President Carter -- a de facto captive of the Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 and 1980 -- and determined to avoid falling into the same trap.

But now, five months later, the escalation of both the rhetoric and the preparations for war in the Persian Gulf have clearly become a preoccupation of President Bush every bit as compelling as those hostages were for President Carter. Meanwhile, the problems at home have grown increasingly serious and threatening to Bush, both substantivallyand politically.

The unemployment rate now has risen above 6 percent. The problems in the banking industry are not limited to New England. The market for real estate, either commercial or residential, is frighteningly weak. And there are daily reports of one major employer after another either furloughing workers or seeking the protection of the bankruptcy laws or both. In short, the economy is now in such an obvious spin that even the administration finally calls it a recession.

But, if George Bush is giving these problems any serious attention, it has not been visible to the naked eye. On the contrary, all we see of the president these days is one bellicose statement after another about he is willing to go "the extra mile" for peace but intends to blow Saddam Hussein to smithereens if that doesn't work.

On the face of it, Bush's preoccupation with the Persian Gulf is understandable. He has committed a huge force and taken the lead, with great success so far, in building an international alliance to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Within the next few days, he may be called upon to make a decision that could cost thousands of American lives -- and, not incidentally to him, decide the fate of his presidency.

So, although it may be legitimate to ask how Bush allowed this situation to develop, it would be carping to say it does not deserve his full attention until it is resolved.

On the other hand, it also is clear that the economy is headed in the same direction it followed in 1982 -- meaning toward the kind of recession that can be menacing to the political health of both Bush and the Republican Party. And the picture of Bush as once again an uninterested bystander can be politically damaging if the recession continues into 1992.

At the moment, the crisis in the gulf is such an overriding concern that it seems far-fetched to imagine any other issue competing for attention. The conventional wisdom is that if Bush succeeds in forcing Iraq out of Kuwait, either through Saddam's capitulation or a military action that does not involve heavy American casualties, then the president's stock in the opinion polls will shoot up and make him invincible when he seeks a second term.

But the premises underlying this assumption may be dead wrong. Although Americans may be fixated on the threat of war in Middle East, it would be a mistake to imagine many voters give a hoot about Kuwait or the Saudis or even the question of who controls the world's oil supply. Similarly, although Americans may be following the crisis closely today, they also have shown the attention span of a 4-year-old on political questions.

Thus, even if Bush succeeds famously in Iraq, it would not be surprising if voters were asking within weeks why the administration cannot do something about the recession. The operative question in politics is the same as ever: What have you done for me lately?

To some degree, of course, Bush is hamstrung in dealing with the economy. The traditional remedies are not available to him because of the condition of the federal budget.

But the situation is serious enough to deserve some attention from the president at a time when he seems to have become a captive of the Persian Gulf crisis.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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