Presidency: Bush Walks and Talks Softly--Where's the Big Stick?

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Mr. Batchelor is the author of the new book, The 1900s (Greenwood). For more information, please see his Web site at www.BobBatchelor.com.

In the early years of the twentieth century, businesses in the United States were transformed into"big business" as a tidal wave of thousands of companies were merged into large trusts that sought to squelch competition. For instance, the nation's first billion dollar corporation, United States Steel, brought together by financier J.P. Morgan, was a conglomeration of 213 manufacturing companies, including 41 mines, and owned more than 1,000 miles of railroad track and 112 ore ships. As a result, U.S. Steel accounted for 60 percent of the nation's steelmaking output and 43 percent of its pig iron capacity.

In response to this threat, President Theodore Roosevelt responded by waging a very public battle with Corporate America, which had been used to more gentlemanly, behind-the-scenes negotiations between business and government. In 1901, he told Congress that"tremendous and highly complex industrial development" among businesses led to"very serious social problems." In his mind,"The old laws, and the old customs which had almost the binding force of law, were once quite sufficient to regulate the accumulation and distribution of wealth. Since the industrial changes which have so enormously increased the productive power of mankind, they are no longer sufficient."

Sensing the public's anxiety, Roosevelt used his political power to take down several of the most powerful trusts and push through government regulations, unprecedented at the time. In 1902, Roosevelt went after Northern Securities, a railroad trust controlled by Morgan, labeling the financier and those like him,"malefactors of great wealth."

Roosevelt's fight with big business expanded and redefined the power of the presidency, underscoring the government's right to regulate corporations through the establishment of federal agencies and direct intervention. By publicly taking on the responsibility for fighting trusts, Roosevelt also redefined how an activist president could make a difference.

A century later, the United States faces an even greater financial challenge--the loss of faith in big business--as a slew of corporations have either admitted to or are fighting charges of economic wrongdoing. Even worse, the ones left holding the bag have been small investors, who believed the misguided economic numbers delivered by duplicitous executives, and employees of these companies, who have been laid off numbering in the tens of thousands.

Rather than take up the mantle of Roosevelt, which the Republican Party has claimed over the last 100 years, President George W. Bush delivers speech after speech filled with weak jabs and vague proposals, geared more toward public opinion polls than real policymaking, even playing the September 11 card in his initial remarks, claiming,"People of this city are writing one of the greatest chapters in our nation's history, and all Americans are proud of New York." Later, he linked the war on terrorism with the fight for corporate responsibility.

Listing typical positives, including U.S. technology prowess and military power, Bush declared,"The American economy is the most creative and enterprising and productive system ever devised." He did not note, however, that in recent times the vaunted creativity of American capitalism has been used to dupe the system and the public.

Many of Bush's proposals, such as forming an independent regulatory body, what he called a"financial crimes SWAT team," played well on the nightly news, but lacked a sense of reality. The multiple layers of personnel and reams of regulations at multinational corporations can protect executives from prosecution, so even when there is clear wrongdoing, attorneys are leery about bringing up charges. Today's business climate is a blessing for forensic accountants and investigators, but don't expect to see many CEOs behind bars.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of Bush's public battle to regain the public's trust in Corporate America is his own shady financial past. While the Clinton's Whitewater ties brought about a highly publicized national shakedown, Bush's dealings as a board member of Harken Energy Corp, which resulted in a blatant stock dump and profit of nearly $850,000, has not elicited a peep from federal regulators. Nor has there been sufficient examination into the Bush administration's deep ties to failed energy giant and poster child for the anti-business climate, Enron.

As a public opinion ploy, Bush's speech might have helped bolster his approval rating, but as a policy piece, it showed the president as a paper tiger, obviously unwilling to go after his corporate brethren, despite public outrage. Bush would be wise to learn from his predecessor a century ago, who proclaimed,"a republic such as ours can exist only by virtue of the orderly limit which comes through the equal domination of the law over all men alike…as shall teach all that no man is above it and no man below it." Bush has walked and talked softly; now is time for the big stick.

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Dennis AU Johnson - 10/20/2004

I actually woke up this morning and read the usual things circulating in the press regarding Bush and Kerry, I really at this point am starved for something that is positive and gives me some idea of where were headed in this country. I opened my search tool and entered
"Positive results from the Bush presidency" and I have to say I wasn't surprised to see the 1st thing pop up was criticism about his record. Oh were in big trouble with half of America still swayed by his words instead of his actions. God help us all