Out of touch

Sandy Grady

December 30, 1991|By Sandy Grady | Sandy Grady,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- A year ago, when he was a wartime commander, nothing in the Iraqi desert could escape George Bush's intelligence. His cruise missiles could fly down a chimney. His smart bombs could bullseye an Iraqi tank in 3 a.m. darkness.

Now Bush is a president flying blind.

He seems a groping stranger in the landscape of his own country.

Sure, he has pollsters, strategists, economic tea-readers, teams of gurus. But Bush confesses he doesn't have a clue what's going on in Americans' nervous hearts.

His man at the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, who's in Bush's age bracket, says, "There's a deeper concern out there than I've seen in my lifetime."

But Bush is mystified. When a reporter at Thursday's mini-press conference asked if Bush understood "public anxiety," the president stumbled in the dark. A man who pals around with prime ministers, CEO's and golf pros is baffled by Americans' jitters.

"I haven't sorted out why in my own mind," said Bush. "Confidence is lower than it was in the 1981 recession, which was a heck of a lot worse. It's hard for me to explain the degree of pessimism."

He seemed desperate to be quizzed on foreign affairs. He'd rather talk about Byelorussia than Detroit.

Maybe he's busy boning up for his Asian jaunt. Or meeting with the Business Round Table. You can't expect a president to hang out in Ypsilanti, Mich., bars with auto workers or Aliquippa, Pa., taprooms with steelworkers if any are left.

Perhaps somebody at the White House will lay it out for the puzzled president on a 3x5 card.

It's not the head cold that scares people, Mr. President. It's the prospect of pneumonia.

We've shaken off recessions. But this one feels like a slide into long-term sickness. And no magic pill.

It's jobs, jobs, jobs, Mr. President, and 8 million folks who don't have them.

When General Motors lays off 74,000 workers, everyone knows in their hearts those jobs will never come back. They're GTJ Gone to Japan.

It's not just blue-collar blues. It's white-collar malaise. Joblessness among managers, engineers and salesmen has zoomed since mid-1990. IBM and Xerox cutbacks show there are no more corporate Big Daddies.

People don't need a Yale Business School diploma to know the U.S. can't lose steel, auto and consumer electronics industries and stay No. 1. What can we sell to Japan, rice and toys? And hope Japan will help bankroll the U.S. government's $350 billion red ink?

No wonder, Mr. President, seven of 10 Americans think "things are going to get worse."

You say numbers were lousier in 1981-82. But the glib actor in your job lulled people into "staying the course." At least Ronald Reagan pretended he had a course.

In 1991 it isn't reassuring, Mr. President, when you treat Americans as hypochondriacs quit whining, whip out the plastic, perk up.

Or when you chuckled your "economists were wrong" all those months you wouldn't utter the "R" word.

Or when you go to Japan as a traveling salesman, begging Japan to buy our cars. (Why would anyone in Tokyo want a U.S.-made Guzzmobile with left-hand drive?)

Nobody believes you'll talk tough to the Japanese about loosening their 33 percent headlock on the U.S. car market. "I'm not changing into a protectionist ... or isolationist," you brag.

But why take 21 business tycoons on this political photo op and not one auto worker or labor guy?

You don't understand Americans' anger that these CEO's rake in huge salaries while firing workers. Chairman Robert Stempel made $869,000 last year while GM lost 2.2 billion. Same guy who cut 74,000 jobs so General Motors could be "leaner."

You wouldn't even jawbone these fat-cat execs, but clucked that "boards of directors should look into these matters."

Your panicky White House gang is frantic for a quick economic jump start. "Tell me what works," you keep elbowing them.

You hint at "stimulative new ideas." The fabulous, dollar-a-day middle-class rebate? The capital-gains scam with new ribbons? You promise to brandish your Magic Economic Bullet in your Jan. 28 State of the Union address.

Better be one helluva speech, Mr. President. With its build-up, you'll have to make FDR's depression fireside chats sound flat.

Here's a start: Understand that people are worried their lifestyles are skidding, the country's fat times are past, their fears of the 1990's genuine, not imagined.

Mikhael Gorbachev made stirring speeches, too; another leader whose country blew trillions on the arms race, made lousy civilian goods, had a do-nothing bureaucracy and econony down the toilet.

You don't know many auto workers, Mr. President.

Call Gorby. You've got one pal who knows what it's like to be out of work, afraid and forgotten.

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