Does he really know or care?

WILEY A. HALL 3rd

January 30, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

The State of the Union address was billed as George Bush's answer to accusations that he neither understood nor cared about the problems of those less fortunate than himself and, indeed, the president came out spitting fire.

He gritted his teeth to demonstrate his fierce determination.

He pounded the podium to show his solemn resolve.

And when he looked into the camera, every man, woman and child in the television audience could see and judge the depth of his sincerity.

"And let me tell you right from the start and right from the heart," said the president, looking fierce, resolute and sincere, "I know we're in hard times, but I know something else: This will not stand."

If you wonder what Bush meant by "This will not stand," it's a tough guy sort of phrase. It demonstrates resolve.

"In this chamber, we can bring the same courage and sense of common purpose to the economy that we brought to Desert Storm," Bush continued, reminding us of the last time he felt fierce, resolute, and sincere. "And we can defeat hard times together."

The president then proceeded to outline specific programs that he said would help the huddled masses.

For instance, on home ownership: "For those Americans who dream of buying a first house but who can't afford it, my plan would allow first-time home buyers to withdraw savings from Individual Retirement Accounts without penalty and provide a $5,000 tax credit for the first purchase of that home."

The president pronounced this proposal with such ferocity, resolution and sincerity that it took a while for it to sink in.

But when it did, huddled masses everywhere shook their heads in dismay and asked, "Huh? What planet is he from?"

"I guess the problem I would have with the president's proposals is, how many first-time home owners have significant amounts of savings tied up in IRAs," said Barbara Alsworth, a member of the Maryland Alliance for Responsible Investment. "The usual pattern is for young people to save to buy a home first and then worry about investing in IRAs."

"The biggest barrier to home ownership for people in this area is coming up with the upfront cash for a down payment and the settlement costs," added Frank Coakley, of the Community Development Finance Corporation. "That $5,000 tax credit may give some people some relief after the fact, but it's not going to put them into a new home if they can't raise the cash up front."

"It's just another one of the president's things to help wealthier people," said Ruth Crystal, of the Low Income Housing Coalition. "But I'm still looking for ways to keep the door open for working-class people and moderate-income people to own homes."

In short, the president proposes to permit people access to funds that the majority of would-be first-time home owners probably do not have, and he will reward them with a generous tax credit that most will not be able to use.

I enjoy good theater as much as anyone.

But it is important to get these little details clear before we get carried away with such grand displays of ferocity, resolution and sincerity. Suppose, just suppose, the president's other proposals to rescue the economy prove equally shallow?

For the record, housing advocates in this area agree that home ownership is becoming increasingly difficult for even middle-class families. Housing costs have outstripped income. Lending institutions are more strict. People are less secure.

"It is a fact we suddenly have more people coming to us to try to save their home from foreclosure than trying to buy a house," said Frank Fischer, of the St. Ambrose Housing Center. "Everybody is struggling to survive."

There are programs that Bush could have supported that answer the real needs of real people. For instance, the state, until it ran out of money recently, offered a program through which families of low to moderate incomes could borrow the money they needed for settlement costs at reduced rates, not payable until they sold the property.

But one wonders if the president, despite an admittedly fine performance, really cares about real people.

And if he does care, then one is forced to wonder whether he is orbiting the same planet as the rest of us.

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