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Bush's financial team takes criticism
WASHINGTON -- At a time of economic uncertainty and stock market distress, President Bush's economic team seems to get little respect -- on Wall Street, Main Street or Capitol Hill.
His administration is drawing increasing midterm election fire from Democrats for its perceived chumminess with big business. The first U.S. president with an MBA degree, ex-Texas oilman Bush has appointed more former chief executive officers to top jobs than any president since Dwight Eisenhower.
But his economic team, led by outspoken and unpredictable Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, is hardly getting rave reviews.
"It's not much of a team. Their lack of political savvy is surprising to me, to a lot of people," said Michael Evans, an independent economic consultant and longtime Federal Reserve watcher.
Growing investor doubt and pessimism, further fueled by Friday's 400-point dive that took the Dow Jones Industrial Average to its lowest level in nearly four years, is subjecting the president's economic team to increasingly harsh scrutiny.
His economic advisers suffer in comparisons with their more-seasoned foreign policy counterparts, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Inevitable contrasts also are drawn with President Clinton's team when it was led by Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a New York investment banker widely trusted and respected by corporate America.
By contrast, unscripted utterances by O'Neill, former chief of aluminum giant Alcoa Corp., have rattled rather than soothed markets -- and even made White House aides nervous.
Harvey Pitt, the Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, is facing rising criticism in Congress for past ties to the accounting industry. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., want him to resign.
Both O'Neill and Pitt may owe their continuing tenure to Bush's reputation for fierce loyalty. "The president stands by his team," presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer said last week.
Team Bush is not exactly dotted with household names or financial luminaries: Commerce Secretary Don Evans; budget director Mitch Daniels; Lawrence Lindsey, chairman of the National Economic Council; R. Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council on Economic Advisers; and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick.
As a group, they have not developed much clout and nearly all have found themselves on the losing ends of battles either with key members of Congress or powerful White House aides.
Vice President Dick Cheney does have name recognition and an impressive business resume. But he has stayed mostly on the sidelines, largely because of investigations into the accounting practices of the Texas-based oil equipment company he used to head, Halliburton.
"If this George Bush is going to avoid the problems of his father, he's going to have to take a very serious look at his economic team," said Leon Panetta, who was Clinton's budget director and later his chief of staff.
Many political analysts blamed the elder Bush's 1992 re-election loss on his misjudging the importance of the economy as an issue.
Panetta says Bush is not being served well by his treasury secretary or other economic advisers.
"I think people respect the fact that Paul O'Neill comes out of business. He's a good fellow. But he lacks that kind of command presence that is so important to the job," Panetta said.
Bush's economic team is not without defenders.
"Bob Rubin was a hard act to follow," said Murray Weidenbaum, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in the early Reagan White House. "But Rubin was in office when the economy was booming. That always helps."
Lately, Lindsey and Evans have been appearing more frequently in public to promote the administration's plan to address recent business scandals.
Lindsey, a former Federal Reserve board member, is viewed as smart by those who work with him. He also is known for flashes of anger, is said to be uncomfortable in front of cameras and often loses internal battles with Bush senior adviser Karl Rove.
Evans, Bush's 2000 campaign chairman, ran a Texas oil and gas exploration company. He is a big booster of the private sector and is known as a team player. But he is not generally regarded as an aggressive dealmaker in pushing the president's agenda, according to those close to the process.
While there are disagreements over the depth of Bush's economic bench, no one disputes there still is one economic guru in town with indisputable credibility -- Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan.
In fact it was Greenspan -- not one of his own economic advisers -- whom Bush quoted at a news conference last week to make the case that economic fundamentals are strong.