“Nobody controls Jimmy and nobody ever will,” said Rosalynn Carter just before the election. But – the question facing the new President in January is a reverse one. That is, can he control the powerful corporate forces which lead to inflation, pollution, and consumer abuse? Mr. Carter recently received an early signal along this line when the steel companies engaged in their familiar lockstep pricing ritual. This time the increase was some 6 percent on flat-rolled products.
The Justice Department’s Antitrust Division has tolerated over the years just such a mockery of competitive enterprise (imagine steel companies raising their prices to meet the competition) because it is a hot political potato. That means it becomes a Presidential matter.
No sooner will Mr. Carter assume office on Jan. 20 than other corporate-bred crises will confront him. The auto industry wants fast action by Congress to delay once again the much-postponed auto pollution standards.
THE BUSINESS ROUNDTABLE will be gearing up its big business executives to pressure the White House for more subsidies, for weaker job safety controls, for less consumer protection and antimonopoly enforcement.
It is not that these demands are to be contested on the merits. It is that the Business Roundtable group is able in many ways to remind Mr. Carter of what can happen when government objects to being the indentured servant of the megacorporate world. Caveats about mass layoffs, recession, fewer investments, and lower tax revenues are
darkly suggested. It may be corporate blackmail, as some members of Congress described it, but when companies are in the economic driver’s seat, it can reduce a weak President to putty.
Like Ford, Carter is known as a stubborn person when pushed. But unlike Ford, Carter has been known to dislike being pushed around by arrogant corporations.
In Georgia, the paper and pulp companies told Gov. Carter that if he didn’t act to lessen the air pollution controls under a new state law they would have to close down. Carter said he told them about his duty to uphold the law. The companies decided to stay open and comply.
The early months of the Carter Administration will be filled with the predictable array of economic and international urgencies. Every special interest group will be hastening to press its views and receive a response. The Presidency of crisis management will continue. Carter will be expected to adjust, to calm, to negotiate, to assure. But will he be able to lead, to forge, to pioneer, to be courageous against the grasping private powers?
IF THIS KIND of Presidential profoundness is to emerge, it will be discernible within the first six months of Carter’s Administration. Citizens may wish to look for the following signs:
Carter’s positions on the consumer protection bill, strip mining legislation, and air and water pollution measures will be early tests. Thus far, his record as governor and his repeated campaign statements place him on a collision course with a defiant industrial lobby.
Carter’s leanings regarding genuine tax reform will start to emerge the moment he announces his economic advisors and top Treasury Department posts.
Carter’s position on a number of pending Congressional measures that provide self-enforcing rights and remedies for taxpayers, consumers, workers and neighborhoods will reflect how committed he is to a redistribution of power under law in the country.
Carter’s policies on employment will be apparent when he decides whether to go along with temporary, make-work appropriations by Congress or whether he will combine the need for employment with the need for energy conservation on the way towards treating the structural unemployment problems of the economy.
If Carter is to be a President who liberates the energies of many people for social justice, he has to make exceptionally capable and sensitive appointments. His associates must be dedicated to solving endemic problems rather than reassuring entrenched interests who have caused these problems.
Above all, he has to have time to think and to commit himself to the redirection of executive branch operations. The nature of Presidents’ daily schedules over the years has not disposed observers to conclude that past occupants of the White House have been able to do much of either.