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Bush's Port Action Puts Economy on the Front Burner

Labor: Invoking the Taft-Hartley Act gives president forum to show he is concerned about fiscal matters. Decision is carefully calibrated.

October 11, 2002|PETER G. GOSSELIN and JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — When President Bush invoked a rarely used labor law to force the reopening of West Coast ports this week, he struck a double blow: one against what government lawyers argued was a threat to economic and national security, and a second against what pollsters said could be a threat to Republican political security.

Bush's first use of the Taft-Hartley Act in nearly a quarter-century followed a carefully choreographed process in which business groups and administration officials ratcheted up warnings about the economic and military dangers of the shutdown while the president stayed above the fray.

Even when he finally acted, Bush was careful to appear even-handed, noting in an executive order, for example, that the shutdown was the result of a management "lockout" rather than a strike by workers.

But a close look at the president's actions suggests that they were motivated by more than the immediate effects of the shutdown.

Recent polls show that even as official Washington is riveted by the prospect of war with Iraq, ordinary Americans are more concerned about the fragile state of the economy. By putting an end to the shutdown, Bush was able to act decisively on both issues, and to present himself as addressing voter worries.

Bush "may have legitimate concerns about the shutdown, but his actions have the happy side-effect of making him look like he's doing something about the economy," said American University political scientist James A. Thurber.

The economy "is the thing that did in [Bush's] father: the public feeling that this was a foreign policy president," said GOP political consultant Frank Donatelli. Administration officials "don't want to leave the impression the president is not interested in the economy."

References to the economy have been winning more prominent billing in the president's speeches in recent days after more than a month of intensive focus on Iraq. On Saturday in New Hampshire, Bush opened his remarks by declaring, "I worry about people being able to find work in America." It was New Hampshire's economic woes in 1992 that started the first President Bush's long slide from office.

The most recent poll on voters' concerns, a survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released Thursday, found that 55% of people questioned identified the economy was the single issue they most wanted candidates to address in the fall elections, up from 20% in June and far ahead of the 22% who are most concerned about the war on terrorism.

"People recognize the importance of the war; they're concerned about terrorism," said center director Andrew Kohut. "But if you think politically, the economy is closer to home for most people."

The ports shutdown itself has contributed to the economic anxiety in California, according to Republican pollster Stephen M. Kinney. "We're beginning to see the same thing we saw in the early '90s," Kinney said. "People are worried, but it's not about taxes or the fear of big government, it's more 'Am I going to lose my job?' "

In entering the fray and putting a stop to the shutdown, the president had to traverse some tricky political terrain, according to aides and observers. He had to reassure the GOP's traditional business base that he would act, yet hold off until the damaging consequences of the lockout were widely apparent. He had to hang on to what few labor allies the Republican administration has, especially those in the Teamsters union, and not anger pro-labor Democrats in Congress whose backing he needs on Iraq and other issues.

The administration handled its business base by intervening early in contract talks between the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping companies and terminal operators, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents the 10,500 workers who man the docks, and threatening drastic action if no settlement was reached.

More recently, the White House provided a private briefing for business lobbyists seeking presidential intervention in advance of Bush acting Tuesday.

The White House tried to hold onto labor support by having top Bush aide Karl Rove and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. call Teamsters President James P. Hoffa and AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney to tout the president's evenhandedness.

"The president's approach [to the shutdown] has been one that played it down the middle," asserted an administration official acquainted with the White House handling of ports dispute.

When Bush went before the TV cameras Tuesday afternoon to announce he would seek a court-ordered end to the labor standoff, he highlighted the shutdown's economic damage to individual Americans. "The work stoppage is hurting our entire economy. It is hurting truckers and rail operators.... It's hurting farmers and ranchers and manufacturers, retailers and consumers.... ," he said.

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