President says economy strong but won't advise on stock market

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

ARGONNE, Ill. -- President Bush had no advice for investors as the stock market gyrated wildly Monday -- "I'm not a stock broker or a stock picker" -- but he said the economy is strong and corporate profits are improving.

"You're talking to the wrong guy about what stocks to buy," the president said in a brief exchange with reporters at a national lab involved in homeland defense.

His remarks mixed optimism, skepticism and even bewilderment about Wall Street as stocks again fell sharply -- reflecting the struggle by Bush and his economic team to respond to tumbling markets.

On the day after telecommunications giant WorldCom Inc. filed the largest bankruptcy in corporate history, the Dow opened with a slight increase, but ultimately plunged nearly 235 points to close at 7,784.

The sagging markets threaten to become a potent political issue in the November midterm elections because a growing number of Americans are deeply invested in stocks; many have their entire savings tied up in 401(k) plans.

White House advisers fear Americans will blame Republicans, if not Bush, for corporate scandals because voters see the GOP as closely aligned with big business.

Market's own dynamics

Indeed, after the bleak market close, the White House sought once again to distance the president from its day-to-day performance.

"Whether the president speaks or doesn't speak, the market has its own dynamics," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said, the screens on the four TV sets in his office blaring another day of bad Wall Street news. "The president is not tied to the gyrations."

However, Fleischer said the president knows he could be implicated for the economic pain regardless.

"What happens on the economy happens on his watch and he knows it," Fleischer said.

Surrounded by computers monitoring experiments at the Argonne National Laboratory, Bush dismissed calls for the resignation of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. He also urged Congress to pass legislation stiffening criminal penalties for corporate wrongdoers, the main ingredient of his economic improvement plan.

"One of the things we can do in Washington is get a corporate responsibility bill passed, and I'm confident we will, which will take some of the risk out of the markets," Bush said.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., noted that stock market dips have now accompanied Bush's economic comments three times in a row.

"The president continues to speak -- that isn't helping us. In fact, it may be hurting us because what people want is action, not words," Gephardt told the National Council of La Raza in Miami Beach.

Asked whether the bankruptcy of WorldCom Inc. would hurt the markets, Bush replied, "I worry that people will lose work. But the market has already, I suspect, has already anticipated the WorldCom decision."

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