Recent speeches suggest Bush is backing down

  • David Broder / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, July 13, 2002 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — The confidence crisis that has overtaken the Bush administration has many dimensions, but at bottom, it comes down to a single question: Can you take this president’s words seriously?

For most of his presidency and, indeed, his political career, George Bush has enjoyed the reputation of saying what he means and meaning what he says. But now uncertainty is infecting both foreign policy and domestic issues and stretching from the Middle East to Wall Street. While his personal approval scores remain very high in the polls, he is building a catalog of policy contradictions and retreats that threaten to undermine his leadership.

Presumably, at some point the stock market will recover, but the first returns on Bush’s efforts to restore confidence in Wall Street were anything but encouraging. In the first two days after Bush journeyed to the heart of the financial world on a self-assigned mission to banish the world’s worries about the integrity of corporate America, the Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 400 points and the Nasdaq market index hit its lowest mark since 1997.

This was not what Bush had in mind when he opened his Tuesday morning address on Wall Street with five successive paragraphs setting forth all the reasons that confidence in the American free enterprise system "is well-placed."

"We can be confident," he declared, not only because of "the amazing achievements of American workers and entrepreneurs," but because "America is taking every necessary step to fight and win the war on terror" and because "last year, we passed the biggest tax cut in a generation" to spur economic growth.

Whether this was just rhetoric or was meant to be taken seriously, Bush’s words clearly linked confidence in him and his policies with trust in financial markets and the corporate culture from which he sprang.

But a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released soon after Bush spoke showed only two out of five Americans think the United States and its allies are winning the war on terrorism, fewer than think it a stalemate.

And next week, the revised budget estimates are likely to show that instead of running a small surplus this year, the government is headed for a deficit of as much as $160 billion, a warning signal about the economic future.

Bush’s personal performance has added to the wobble in confidence. The last-minute news conference in which he returned to the public stage from his Independence Day holiday was the weakest, most inarticulate showing he has made since the early months of his presidency. Asked repeatedly about his sale of stock in Harken Energy Corp., where he was a director, shortly before it had to revise upward its reported losses for the year, he responded eight times with variations on the words, "It has been looked at by the SEC," the Securities and Exchange Commission, which found no reason to challenge the legality of his action.

When Bush is feeling defensive, he seems to think that reiteration is as effective as explanation or persuasion. It is not, but it is better than outright contradiction. And it turns out that, as a Harken director, Bush received two low-interest loans from the corporation to finance his purchase of company stock — the very kind of transaction which he condemned in his Wall Street speech.

The problem is deeper. It involves policy reversals as well as personal contradictions. Nine months ago, Bush said he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." When asked about the elusive terrorist last week, Bush pretended he hardly matters, answering a question on Osama with the remark that "the war on terrorism is a lot bigger than one person."

Three months ago, Bush issued an ultimatum to Ariel Sharon to withdraw Israeli forces from Palestinian territories in the West Bank "without delay." Last week, with the Israelis still there, he said, he will "call upon the Israelis, as security improves, to allow for more freedom of movement by the Palestinian people." That’s quite a difference.

In the real world, where presidents must operate, friends and foes are constantly testing and assessing how seriously they must take the words of any leader. We do not know how Ariel Sharon or Yasser Arafat (who’s been told by Bush to take a hike) or Saddam Hussein or bin Laden gauge this American president.

But last week, America’s allies in the United Nations defied a Bush administration threat to end U.S. participation in the Bosnia peacekeeping operation unless our troops were given blanket immunity from possible prosecution by the new International Criminal Court. Instead, the United States will seek a temporary exemption, leading one unnamed diplomat to tell The Washington Post, "the Americans blinked."

Too many back-downs in too short a time.

David Broder can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200.

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