Bush Can't Even Count On The Corner Office

Reagan Democrats are deserting the Grand Old Party. The gender gap is wider than ever. California is all but lost for George Bush. Even his home state of Texas is up for grabs. But for solace, the President can always look to Corporate America, right?

Maybe not.

On the record, most chief executives are Bush backers. Scratch a little, however, and it's clear that support is weak among corporate chieftains. They fault Bush for failing to push his domestic agenda, then blaming Congress. "That's an insufficient answer," complains one CEO who has raised money for Bush. "His job is to be as persistent with Congress as he has been with the Arabs and the Israelis."

Indeed, just when Bush needs the support most, the GOP's lock on America's executive suites may be cracking. A few big-name CEOs now say they'll vote for the change that Democratic candidate Bill Clinton promises. Among them: Xerox Corp. Chief Paul A. Allaire and Sara Lee Corp. CEO John H. Bryan. "Clinton will invest in America so our competitiveness is improved," says Allaire. "It won't be just spending." Others appear to feel the same way: On Aug. 10, Clinton met in New York with 26 CEOs who back him or are leaning his way.

DUMP DAN. There's more bad news for Bush in BUSINESS WEEK's new poll of executives. It shows strong dissatisfaction with his economic management: 76% rate it fair or poor. A staggering 61% think he should dump Vice-President Dan Quayle. But Clinton's program gets mixed reviews, too, with most respondents nixing his health care, tax, and employee-training plans.

Certainly, there is no rush to Clinton among CEOs. But frustration and anger with Bush is spilling into the open. "We have no national agenda," griped TRW Inc.'s Joseph T. Gorman at an auto conference on Aug. 5. "The fabric of our society is coming apart, and we're not getting the leadership we need."

It's bad enough there is little confidence that Bush is steering the right economic course; worse, there's no enthusiasm for a Bush second term--even among rock-ribbed Republicans. "People look at his lack of action, and they've projected the Republicans as the party that can't do anything," says Howard P. Allen, retired chairman of SCEcorp, where he heads the board's executive committee. "My father would turn over in his grave, but we need some sort of a WPA-type program--more action to encourage investments."

Chrysler Corp.'s Lee A. Iacocca, who for a while backed Ross Perot, sees defeat in Bush's inaction: "I told Bush, 'We're losing 80 to nothing at the half,' and urged a change in the game plan. And he's telling people, 'Stick with the plan. Don't change anything.' He's going to lose." Other CEOs agree that to win, Bush must announce a major program to address the country's deep concerns about the future. Says ARCO Chairman Lodwrick M. Cook, a big Bush fund-raiser: "The President has to respond to the things that are being said about his inability to deal with the economy."

Bush's economic policy isn't the only thing troubling executives. They're struck by his seeming inability to make any domestic decisions. "This Administration takes one tack one day and another tack another day," says the chief of a Midwestern company. Many are mystified by his campaign behavior, too. "He has fallen behind, everyone is waiting for him to do something, and he isn't doing anything. No one knows why," says one.

How much trouble does this spell for the nation's CEO? At this point, probably not much. Clinton's campaign would love to release a list of CEO supporters, but some corporate stalwarts just won't pull a Democratic lever. "I believe that less government in the life of our society is best. Government doesn't create jobs; business creates jobs. Republicans do that better than Democrats," says Maurice R. Greenberg, CEO of American International Group Inc.

KEY CLINTON TEST. Others don't think Clinton has succeeded at product differentiation. "He's cloaking it well, but he's a tax-and-spend Democrat," says one CEO. Others fear a different specter: "Any businessperson who has thoughts of Clinton paired with a Democratic Congress will rush immediately to a booth and vote for Bush," says Timken Co. CEO W. R. Timken Jr. "Look at what happened last time, when Carter was in the White House. We had 20% inflation and interest rates."

Clinton will soon have a chance to show he won't cave in to Congress and interest groups: in his reaction to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which unions oppose. Says one CEO: "Business is watching him on NAFTA." To win its support, Clinton must accept an agreement with only modest environmental and worker-retraining provisions.

Allaire believes Clinton can change the stereotype. "As more and more businesspeople listen to what he's saying, you'll find many will move away from their fear that he's a tax-and-spender." If he's right, that could be one more crack in the GOP's electoral coalition.

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