Bush builds a team

During the 1992 presidential campaign, a famous sign hung in then-Governor Bill Clinton's war room: 'It's the Economy, Stupid.'

          During the 1992 presidential campaign, a famous sign hung in then-Governor Bill Clinton's war room: "It's the Economy, Stupid."

          Clinton beat President George Bush by focusing - "like a laser beam," he vowed - on that mantra. Now Bush's son is heading to the White House, and signs of a downturn may force him to consider a twist on that line: "It's the Stupid Economy."

          President-elect George W. Bush inherits an economy in need of attention. "I'm hopeful that this economy stays strong," Bush said last week. "I'm also a realist, and one of my jobs is to think ahead, just in case."

          Bush's thinking became clearer last week as he began assembling his economic team. First up: Paul O'Neill, the retiring chairman of Alcoa and adviser to two previous Republican presidents, tapped to be Treasury Secretary. At week's end, Bush selected conservative Missouri Senator John Ashcroft to be Attorney General, a critical step toward formulating his antitrust policy. Still to come: key appointments to the US Office of Management and Budget, the National Economic Council and several agencies.

          Among the challenges facing O'Neill, a deficit hawk who counts US Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan as a confidant, will be shepherding Bush's proposed $US1.3 trillion tax cut and his plan to overhaul Social Security.

          Some have derided the 65-year-old O'Neill as an old-economy pick, but he's actually tech-savvy. He worked as a government computer analyst in the 1960s. When he became CEO of Alcoa in 1987, one of his first moves was to integrate the aluminum producer's accounting, inventory and customer tracking databases into a single system. A decade later, he pushed the company to use the internet to reach out to its 103,000 customers. In August, Alcoa unveiled a partnership with business-to-business exchange Freemarkets.com to sell metal online.

          But while jobs in the Cabinet have clout, "more important than who Bush appoints as Treasury Secretary is who he appoints to the (US) Federal Trade Commission, (US) Federal Communications Commission" and other agencies, says James Glassman, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

          With the nation's economic growth tailing off, Bush can't afford to make any mistakes.

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