- Watching George W. Bush address the New York financial
community Friday brought back many memories. Unfortunately, they were about
his speech right after Hurricane Katrina, the one when he said: "America
will be a stronger place for it."
- "You've helped make our country really in many ways
the economic envy of the world," he told the Economic Club of New
- You could almost see the thought-bubble forming over
the audience: Not this week, kiddo.
- The president squinched his face and bit his lip and
seemed too antsy to stand still. As he searched for the name of King Abdullah
of Saudi Arabia ("the king, uh, the king of Saudi") and made
guy-fun of one of the questioners ("Who picked Gigot?"), you
had to wonder what the international financial community makes of a country
whose president could show up to talk economics in the middle of a liquidity
crisis and kind of flop around the stage as if he was emcee at the Iowa
Republican Pig Roast.
- We're really past expecting anything much, but in times
of crisis you would like to at least believe your leader has the capacity
to pretend he's in control. Suddenly, I recalled a day long ago when my
husband worked for a struggling paper full of worried employees and the
publisher walked into the newsroom wearing a gorilla suit.
- The country that elected George Bush - sort of - because
he seemed like he'd be more fun to have a beer with than Al Gore or John
Kerry is really getting its comeuppance. Our credit markets are foundering,
and all we've got is a guy who looks like he's ready to kick back and start
- This is not the first time Bush's attempts to calm our
fears redoubled our nightmares. His first speech after 9/11 - that two-minute
job on the Air Force base - was so stilted that the entire country felt
like heading for the nearest fallout shelter. After Katrina, of course,
it took forever to pry him out of Crawford, and then he more or less read
a laundry list of Goods Being Shipped to the Flood Zone and delivered some
brief assurances that things would work out.
- O.K., so he's not good at first-day response. Or second.
Third can be a problem, too. But this economic crisis has been going on
for months, and all the president could come up with sounded as if it had
been composed for a Rotary Club and then delivered by a guy who had never
read it before. "One thing is certain that Congress will do is waste
some of your money," he said. "So I've challenged members of
Congress to cut the number of cost of earmarks in half."
- Besides being incoherent, this is a perfect sign of an
utterly phony speech. Earmarks are one of those easy-to-attack Congressional
weaknesses, and in a perfect world, they would not exist. But they cost
approximately two cents in the grand budgetary scheme of things. Saying
you're going to fix the economy or balance the budget by cutting out earmarks
is like saying you're going to end global warming by banning bathroom nightlights.
- Bush pointed out - as if the entire economic world didn't
already know - that Congress has already passed an economic incentive package
that will send tax rebate checks to more than 130 million households. "A
lot of them are a little skeptical about this 'checks in the mail' stuff,"
he jibed. Jokejoke. Winkwink.
- Then, after a run through of "ideas I strongly reject,"
Bush finally got around to announcing that he was going to "talk about
what we're for. We're obviously for sending out over $150 billion into
the marketplace in the form of checks that will be reaching the mailboxes
by the second week of May.
- "We're for that," he added.
- Once the markets had that really, really clear, Bush
felt free to go on to the other things he was for, which very much resembled
that laundry list for Katrina ("400 trucks containing 5.4 million
Meals Ready to Eat - or M.R.E.'s ... 3.4 million pounds of ice ...")
This time the rundown included a six-month-old F.H.A. refinancing program,
and an industry group called Hope Now that offers advice to people with
- And then, finally, the nub of the housing crisis: "Problem
we have is, a lot of folks aren't responding to over a million letters
sent out to offer them assistance and mortgage counseling," the president
of the United Statestold the world.
- But wait - more positive news! The secretary of Housing
and Urban Development is proposing that lenders supply an easy-to-read
summary with mortgage agreements. "You know, these mortgages can be
pretty frightening to people. I mean, there's a lot of tiny print,"
the president said.
- Really, if he can't fix the economy, the least he could
do is rehearse the speech.