By Richard S. Dunham
Pity the embattled business executive, having to deal with a stock market plunge, corporate scandals, and perp walks. How bad is the corporate boss's image? A recent Harris Poll found that 87% of Americans think most top managers are paid more than they deserve. A huge number -- 85% of adults -- say they're mad that the top execs get rich at the expense of ordinary workers. And 46% are "very angry" about it.
Yep, it's a bad year to be a CEO. Just ask Martha Stewart. Not only is the home-decorating and media magnate under government investigation for possible insider trading but in a survey on the Dilbert Web site, she was named the "weaseliest" person of 2002. And the competition was stiff: Lame-duck California Representative Gary Condit and the French ice-skating judge involved in medal-fixing at the Winter Olympics.
You would think that so many citizens seething about all this would be serious trouble for the Republican Party, the traditional defender of Big Business. But you'd be wrong. Whether it's because of the continuing threat of terrorism, the looming war with Iraq, saturation news coverage of snipers and kidnapers, or incompetence on the part of Democratic Party leaders, the Donkeys haven't been able to pin the tail on the Elephant. Maybe, to cite dilbert.com again, it's because the same people who vilified Martha Stewart picked the Democratic Party as the weaseliest institution in the world.
With apologies to Stewart, the Democrats, and Dilbert, it's worth looking at the work of public-opinion professionals. The widely respected Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds that the issue of corporate crime is a political wash. When asked which party could better deal with corporate corruption, Americans gave the GOP a slim advantage, 36% to 31%. Voters thought Democrats would be more effective -- 41% to 33% -- in forcing business-practice reform.
The parties were statistically tied on bringing corrupt execs to justice. "There's little evidence that either party has a clear advantage on this issue," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
Another reason the Dems are having trouble capitalizing: With the election just eight days away, most Americans aren't focusing on corporate corruption. Just 3 in 10 adults are closely following news of business misconduct. And just 28% know that Congress passed a comprehensive, bipartisan bill to toughen accounting regulations and criminal penalties.
It's all part of the love/hate/apathy relationship Americans have with the capitalist economic model. According to pollster Karlyn Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, three-quarters of Americans believe their free-enterprise system is a major reason for the nation's success -- a view that has changed little in the past decade. And they believe that capitalism -- despite the occasional economic downturns -- will keep America prosperous.
Though Big Business and corporate execs are viewed with disdain, most people view their own company as honest. And polls show that the percentage of folks with low opinions of execs hasn't changed in 20 years. And those two decades have seen the insider-trading scandals of the '80s, the tech bubble of the '90s, and the turn-of-the-century flameouts of Enron, WorldCom, and the dot-coms, Bowman points out.
Still, the brass shouldn't rest easy just yet. Polls show widespread anger about business abuses. According to Harris, two-thirds of Americans believe that rewards in the workplace are distributed less fairly than they were five years ago. And three-fourths of workers above age 50 hold that view.
Even more ominous for business: More Americans say they're worse off than they were five years ago than say they're better off. That sentiment is particularly pronounced among seniors, who may never recoup the investment losses they've suffered in the past two years. Fifty percent of voters ages 65 and older say they're worse off today than they were five years ago, vs. just 12% who see themselves as more prosperous.
Because elderly voters are the most likely demographic group to show up at the polls in off-year elections, Republicans could be stung in states with large concentrations of older voters, such as Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. "But with impending military action against Iraq dominating the news, the Democrats haven't yet exploited this issue," concludes Harris Poll Chairman Humphrey Taylor. And with Election Day, Nov. 5, just around the corner, time is running out.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht