For a few weeks there, it seemed as if America - especially its
political leaders - had forgotten about the country's economic woes.
The talk in Washington was about the "inevitability" of another
terrorist attack, the shortcomings of its intelligence agencies, and
the president's proposal for the new Department of Homeland
Security. Not surprisingly, terrorism reappeared as Americans' No. 1
But along came telecommunications giant WorldCom and its
misplaced $4 billion. Suddenly, Washington is snapping to attention.
President Bush is planning a major address on corporate
responsibility when he visits Wall Street July 9. Congress is
wearing a familiar expression of studied concern, with the House
holding hearings on WorldCom July 8, and the Senate taking up
accounting-reform legislation when lawmakers return from the
Independence Day holiday.
Behind much of the attentiveness, though, lies a fundamental
political calculation: The Democrats believe they finally have an
issue they can use against a popular president, while the White
House is trying to get out front on a subject that could pose
serious problems for the GOP - particularly if other economic
"The perfect storm comes when you have a sagging economy, a
burgeoning deficit, and plummeting investor and consumer
confidence," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the
Hudson Institute here. We have indications of all three, though not
yet at gale force intensity, and that does not bode well for the
Bush administration or Republicans in this fall's congressional
elections, he says.
Pinning blame on the GOP
Indeed, a new strategy memo by the Democratic group Democracy
Corps argues: "Voters are very ready to believe that the Republicans
have given free rein to an ethos that rewards irresponsible behavior
by the powerful, at the expense of employees and ordinary
Already, candidates across the country have been scrambling to
address the issue in their campaigns. Out in the heartland, Iowa
congressional hopeful John Norris faulted his opponent, GOP Rep. Tom
Latham for inaction and proposed a "corporate accountability" plan
of his own.
On the offensive, President Bush has spoken forcefully of the
need for corporate responsibility since the WorldCom news broke last
week. At the same time, he has sought to reassure Americans that
most business leaders are honest and that the country's economic
fundamentals are sound. In his radio address Saturday he emphasized
that executives guilty of fraud "will do jail time."
Recent opinion polls show that Americans' concern about the
economy is just as strong as the terrorism issue. According to the
new bipartisan Battleground poll, the economy and jobs essentially
tied with terrorism as the top concern among voters. …