April 26, 2001

April 26, 2001 | Commentary on Political Thought

Despite Bush's Narrow Win, He's Made His Own Mandate

President George W. Bush and his advisers don't think 100 days sufficient time to appraise their performance. They consider the end of the first session of Congress -- 180 days -- a better benchmark.

But thus far, they have been no less able than their predecessors to fend off comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt's early days in office, when the term "first 100 days" entered the American political lexicon.

President Roosevelt, of course, came in at the height of the Great Depression. He commandeered no fewer than 16 pieces of emergency legislation through Congress. No ensuing president has equaled that record. Nor have the times demanded it. Nonetheless, Mr. Bush is fated to endure early assessments. How is he doing?

Quite well, on a number of fronts.

Public persona. Bush eased into the presidency. He worked hard to establish a good rapport both with his colleagues in government and with the American people. His inaugural address was the most eloquent and quotable since Ronald Reagan's, perhaps even since John F. Kennedy's. With a broad brush, he painted his vision of "compassionate conservatism" onto the national canvas. Like these two predecessors, he has used self-deprecating wit to disarm critics and reassure supporters. His non-State of the Union message, much shorter than Bill Clinton's (to the nation's relief), was crisp, generous in spirit, and to the point. In exchanges with the press, he comes across as natural, prepared, and ready with a joke. The nation has come to like what it sees; this will work to his benefit.

Use of the bully pulpit. Whatever becomes of Bush's "faith-based initiative," he has the whole country talking about how remedies rooted in religious teachings can alleviate social maladies. Chalk that up as a win.

Advancing an agenda. When Bush began talking tax cuts, few Democrats warmed to them. A skeptical Al Gore eventually promised "targeted" cuts of $500 billion over 10 years. With Bush in office, Congressional Democrats upped the amount to $700 billion. At the end of the opening volley, the House voted out Bush's recommended $1.6 trillion in cuts. The Senate went for $1.2 trillion. What emerges from the House-Senate conference should come even closer to what Bush wants. Score another victory.

On education, Bush is all but assured of getting most of his way. Having won the case for increased accountability, he may be able to make an even stronger case for "school choice," vouchers included, later.

Bush surprised Pentagon watchers when he ordered a study of the nation's defense needs before submitting all his spending proposals. He is sure to draw upon his enhanced credibility as a budget hawk when he submits his proposal for a national missile defense system.

Time will tell whether flack that Bush has received on the environmental front is the product of uncertain policies or poor public relations. It remains the sole area where Bush's critics have been able to seize the upper hand -- assisted, no doubt, by Clinton -- set landmines.

Crisis management. With U.S.-China relations still a "work in progress," Bush deserved the praise he reaped for the safe return of 24 American service personnel from China. That he pulled it off without Clinton-style grandstanding and cheap "apologies" is to his credit. His deft handling of arms sales to Taiwan -- the largest supply in a decade -- also puts him in good stead. His handling of his early foreign policy tests should increase his standing with allies and adversaries. Even before his early successes, European and Russian leaders appeared resigned to Bush initiatives such as missile defense.

Personnel. Bush assembled a capable cabinet and competent White House staff. His willingness, if not eagerness, to surround himself with people whose expertise in policy and experience in Washington exceeds his own has served him well. Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and others have worked together before. Many are able to view situations through the eyes of their counterparts because they once held their jobs. Backbiting, feuds, and one-upmanship that plagued prior presidencies have been minimal under Bush.

Bush's slowness in filling second- and third-level posts -- whose occupants perform much of the heavy lifting on policy and administration -- results primarily from a process all who have studied it insist is "broken." The quality and effectiveness of public service are hardly advanced when it takes a new president the better part of a year to "staff up."

Taking charge. Bush has learned from the mistakes and failures of other presidents. Like Mr. Reagan, Bush came in with a plan and stuck with it. Reminiscent of Kennedy, who had also won the closest election in then-recent memory, he made his own post-electoral mandate. Unlike Jimmy Carter, he set priorities. Unlike Mr. Clinton, Bush does not want or sense a need to be in the lead of every story. He is making a clear imprint, nonetheless.

Not a bad way to begin a presidency.

About the Author

Related Issues: Political Thought

Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor