April 29, 2001 | Commentary on Political Thought
Most new presidents try to differentiate themselves from their immediate predecessors. None, though, had a transition or a first 100 days less like those of his predecessor than George W. Bush.
Unlike Bill Clinton, Bush began by reaching out to members of the other party. He held meetings with members of the Black Caucus, invited the Kennedys over for movies and addressed Democratic retreats.
Following in John F. Kennedy's footsteps, Bush resisted entreaties that he shy away from campaign proposals and settle into the role of a caretaker. Just as Kennedy pursued the Peace Corps, the space program, tax cuts, Medicare, and, ultimately, civil rights (campaign promises all), Bush stayed steadfast to education reform, tax cuts, and increased defense capabilities. If Clinton raised expectations through constant public appearances and accelerated rhetoric, Bush lowered them by limiting his visibility to a few carefully constructed events and through deliberate delegation. Like Ronald Reagan, whom the chattering class of his day thought an "amiable dunce," Bush embarked on a charm offensive. Like the New Frontiersman as well as the Gipper, he rallied supporters and disarmed critics through self-deprecating humor seldom seen on the campaign trail.
Like Kennedy and Reagan, Bush used his inaugural address to set a tone for his presidency. Expanding his definition of "compassionate conservatism," he proclaimed persistent poverty "unworthy of our nation's promise," called child abandonment and abuse "failures of love," and declared prisons "no substitute for hope and order in our souls."
He followed up by using the bully pulpit to laud "faith-based" programs intended to redress social ills. Whatever becomes of his efforts, Bush, through the attention he has showed the subject, has already advanced their cause. Many groups report increased private donations since he began drawing attention to their work.
When he made "accountability" the centerpiece of his education program, Bush may have tilted the scales in every state capital and every school district. Those who proclaim increased money alone as the way to improvement find themselves on the defensive. Should his "funds with results" approach catch on, increased competition and even vouchers cannot be far behind. Not a bad use of limited funds.
One would never know from the debate over tax cuts that Democrats once opposed them. When the Dems came around, they did so most grudgingly and for less than half of what Bush proposed ($700 billion over 10 years, as opposed to $1.6 trillion.) He is already assured of $1.2 billion with the serious negotiations about to begin.
In his first foreign-policy test, over China, Bush stayed committed to peace through strength and came across as his own man. He eschewed center stage and other Clinton pyrotechnics and relied on diplomatic channels to secure the return of 24 Americans from China. He then approved the largest arms sale to Taiwan in a decade.
Bush moved on all these fronts with the assistance of able aides, many of whom, including Dick Cheney, came to their posts with greater Washington experience. No pizza stains on these budget books. It is almost a cliché in Washington to proclaim this a government by adults. It is also getting things done.
Alvin S. Felzenberg directs the Mandate for Leadership Project at the Heritage Foundation. He writes and lectures about the American presidency.
Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer