Remarks at a White House Briefing on Economic Competitiveness

February 25, 1987

Well, thank you all, and welcome to the Old Executive Office Building. It's a pleasure to be able to welcome so many distinguished executives from the Midwest, the part of the country that I grew up in and that still holds a special place in my heart.

I have to digress for a moment and tell you something about that great heartland, the middle of our country. The first time I was ever in England, in 1949, and I was with a little group, and we wanted to see some of those historic old pubs. So, on a weekend afternoon we were introduced into one. The driver apologized because it was only 400 years old. [Laughter] And it turned out to be a mom and pop installation. And the lady serving us, the mom -- she finally spoke up and said, ``You're Americans, aren't you?'' And we agreed that we were. ``Oh,'' she said, ``there was a group of your chaps down the road during the war.'' And she said, ``They would come in here in the evening.'' She said, ``They called me mom, and they called the old man pop.'' And she said, ``They would come in and hold a songfest. And then,'' she said, ``it was Christmas Eve.'' And by this time she's not looking at us anymore; she's kind of looking off into the distance. And a tear was beginning to come. She said, ``We were in here all alone, and,'' she said, ``the door opened and in they come.'' And she said, ``They had presents for us -- Christmas pres-ents.'' And then she said this line that got me. She said, ``Big strappin' lads they was, from a place called Ioway.'' [Laughter] Well, I think we could all visualize those ``big strappin' lads.'' They're probably the best ambassadors of good will we send out.

But as business leaders from America's heartland you represent a tremendously important audience: men and women with responsibility for so much of our country's corporate and economic might -- so much of America's growth, prosperity, and job creation. You know, a few years ago, I challenged our nation's educators to improve education throughout America. Since then all 50 States have had task forces in education, and our students' test scores have risen. And now we're engaged in another great effort, an effort to make America more competitive in world markets -- in a word, a quest for excellence. And in a moment I'll issue you a challenge that's every bit as important as the one I gave to the educators.

First, though, permit me to tell you what those of us in government intend to do as our part of this quest for excellence. And by the way, you can relax: I know that others have given you thorough briefings, so I promise to keep my own remarks short. You know, I often reflect that George Washington -- I try to keep this in mind -- gave an inaugural address of just 135 words and became, of course, a great President. And then there was William Henry Harrison. Harrison gave an inaugural address that droned on for nearly 2 hours. It was a blustery March day. Harrison caught pneumonia, and a month later he was dead. [Laughter] I told him to keep it short. [Laughter]

But in a certain sense, the quest for excellence began when we first took office in 1981. During the past 6 years we've cut tax rates, reduced regulations, supported a sound monetary policy, and held down the growth of government spending. And the result: Inflation has fallen to its lowest level in 25 years. Our unemployment rate is among the lowest in the Western World. Our economy has created some 13 million new jobs. In manufacturing -- often cited as one of the weakest sectors -- the fact is that labor productivity is rising at a rate almost 50 percent greater than the postwar average. Several firms have moved some of their manufacturing operations back into America. Yet, as we both know, there's still so much more to be done. And in considering our quest for excellence, we must look, above all, to the future.

Just last week I sent to Congress a package of legislative proposals to advance this quest for excellence. These proposals include job retraining for displaced workers, training funds for young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, a host of measures that would spur innovation in American science and technology, and proposals that would do a great deal to improve that aspect of American life that bears so directly on our future -- education. I could speak at length about each of these -- but, then, I made you a promise. So, let me concentrate instead on one area that I know is of special concern to each of you: world trade.

To begin with, our administration takes it as a fundamental premise that the answer to our problems is more international trade, not less -- and certainly not protectionist barriers like those some in Congress are advocating. After all, when you're my age you can't help but remember that Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley protectionist legislation in 1930 and that just 3 years later unemployment in America stood at 25 percent. I was one of them. You of the Mid-America Committee have supported us in our efforts to beat back protectionist legislation and keep the emphasis on free and fair trade. And you'll be happy to hear that I have good news. The threat of protectionist legislation is still with us, but at the same time I see a new hope for a bipartisan consensus on the importance of expanding world trade. No less a Democratic figure than House Speaker Jim Wright recently said, ``The solution lies in opening markets for American goods, not in closing our markets to foreign goods.''

Well, as you know, at the end of the Second World War the United States stood virtually alone, an economic giant that none of the war-ravaged powers could begin to match. After the war the United States grew still more economically stronger, leading the world by example. Today Europe and Japan have been rebuilt, and many real income levels have risen in many developing countries. By way of international trade, this new prosperity in the rest of the world adds greatly to our own by enabling them to buy American goods. But, yes, it also poses certain challenges. To begin with, there's the serious problem of markets that have been intentionally closed to American goods. Here, too, we've already begun to take action. Indeed, in this administration we've taken the strongest actions in American history against unfair trade practices abroad. And in the 2 years to come, we'll be taking actions that are stronger still.

The proposals we sent to Congress include, for example a request to grant wider protection to patents, copyrights, and trade secrets -- in effect putting up a ``No Trespassing'' sign over American intellectual property. And in our package, the Trade Employment and Productivity Act, we asked Congress for the authority to negotiate a new round of trade agreements to lower trade barriers the world over. Free trade must be also fair trade, and we intend to see to it that world trade is just that. The Secretary of Treasury recently reached an agreement to encourage greater growth and domestic demand among our trading partners. Growing world markets are the ultimate answer to growth in our economy, growth in trade, and growth in the number of jobs. Yet in this quest for excellence there's much more to do than to open foreign markets -- much to do to make American goods and services, American education, indeed our whole way of life, resonate with excellence. I've already mentioned the many proposals that I sent to Congress last week, but there are limits to government's role -- limits to what government should do, limits, after all, to what government can do.

So, in closing, I need to enlist your help, if you will, to issue that challenge that I mentioned at the outset. For the sake of our future, do all you can to make your businesses more innovative and efficient. In export markets, compete more effectively, develop better techniques of management, better goods, and better services. Because the better our management, the more innovative and competitive we are, the more jobs we'll create, and the more prosperous all of America will become. For our part, our administration has done its best to provide a healthy economy and to protect you from protectionist legislation. And now I ask you, in short, to participate in every way you can in this -- America's quest for excellence. We all have a stake in the outcome.

So, thank you all, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 11:30 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building to the Mid-America Committee, a group of corporate executives from the Midwest.