WACO, Texas — President Bush, trying to calm a jittery stock market and show he’s attacking the nation’s economic problems, is seeking advice from an assemblage ranging from blue-collar workers to blue-chip CEOs.
A welder, a truck driver and other wage earners were set to join Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and leading Cabinet members at an invitation-only economic forum Tuesday at Baylor University law school.
But the leading participants in “The President’s Economic Forum” represented a short cross-section of the cream of America’s corporate boardrooms, including the CEOs of International Paper, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the New York Stock Exchange, American Express, Home Depot, Caterpillar, Intel Corp., the National Association of Manufacturing, Folgers Coffee, eBay, Verizon Communications, National Semiconductor and Yahoo Inc.
Democrats dismissed the forum as a public relations ploy and a nod to corporate donors to GOP coffers. Many economists were skeptical it would do much to restore consumer confidence.
“I think it’s pretty much a complete waste of time. I think the president’s time would be better spent just being on vacation,” said Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economic adviser to the first President Bush.
College presidents, economists, labor officials, farmers, health and education professionals, and technology experts also were invited. The roster included more than 240 participants.
“This is a listening and teaching session for the president,” White House chief of staff Andrew Card said.
Bush also planned to use the platform offered by the forum to announce he would not release $5.1 billion officially earmarked for combatting terrorism — some of which Congress earmarked for purposes unrelated to homeland security. Some administration officials said Bush was blocking the money as a signal to Congress to rein in spending.
Administration officials hastened to rebut complaints that vocal critics of the administration’s economic policies were excluded from the forum, as were members of Congress.
“The president believes that the best solutions are found outside Washington, and that’s why he wants to hear directly from working Americans and small investors, who are the backbone of our economy,” deputy White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
“I see this as an opportunity to have a concentrated engagement with 200-250 people whose opinion I respect,” Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press.
With control of both houses of Congress at stake in November’s midterm elections, Democrats have been quick to attack the forum.
Democratic Party chief Terry McAuliffe cited an “administration adrift” and sought to revive criticism Democrat Bill Clinton leveled against Bush’s father in 1992 that he was out of touch with economic concerns of ordinary Americans.
Bush was set to spend more than four hours at the Baylor conference, located less than an hour’s drive from his 1,600 acre ranch near Crawford in central Texas.
The president was attending four of the eight sessions, including panels on corporate responsibility; economic recovery and job creation; health care security; and small investors and retirement security.
Cheney was covering the others: small business and smarter regulation; education and workers; technology and innovation; and trade.
The forum coincided with a meeting of Federal Reserve policy makers in Washington and came a day before the chief executives of publicly traded companies must certify to the Securities and Exchange Commission the accuracy of their financial statements.
Some analysts saw the timing as an effort by the White House to get out in front of any negative developments on the corporate accountability front that could further roil the markets.
Few analysts expected much from the forum. But some suggested it could do no harm — and did show the president involved in the economic-policy process.
Others suggested it served the White House’s purpose of showing the president involved in the economic-policy process.
“There’s no down side to that,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for the Economy.com consulting service.
Business groups applauded the gathering.
“It’s a great platform for me on behalf of the business community to speak candidly about what we have to do to strengthen the economy,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue said.