San Diego Union-Tribune

April 29, 2001

Bush off to strong start, say analysts
  No pitfalls in first 100 days, but 'it hasn't been painless'


WASHINGTON -- Having easily outrun the controversial circumstances of his election, President Bush ends the first lap in his presidency with high popularity and solid prospects of some legislative victories.

But as the president submits to the traditional 100-day assessment of his administration, he has also done little to broaden the base that barely brought him that electoral victory last year as the first president in a century to lose the nation's popular vote.

Still, the 43rd president has avoided the early pitfalls that snared some of his predecessors and assesses his own performance so far as "pretty darned good."

It is an assessment generally shared by independent analysts even as they warn of potential problems down the road.

"Compared to other presidents, he's done very well," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "He's doing better than most of his predecessors, but it hasn't been painless."

He has controlled the agenda on Capitol Hill -- with the notable exception of campaign finance reform, where rival John McCain called the shots.

Congress is on the brink of passing a tax cut that, while short of what Bush asked for, is in excess of $1 trillion -- less than a year after Democrats vowed to block anything that large.

On education, negotiations with Democrats are progressing and a compromise package is expected this year, but without the school vouchers Bush promoted during the campaign. And his critics are too weak in Congress to block him from rolling back dozens of Clinton-era regulations.

"We're chewing over things we wouldn't be chewing on if he weren't president," said Bruce Buchanan, an expert on the presidency at the University of Texas.

One thing critics are sinking their teeth into are Bush's environmental moves.

Among other things, the president pulled the United States out of the Kyoto global warming treaty; dropped a Clinton administration regulation to reduce arsenic in drinking water; and, as he did during the campaign, called for oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness. His administration also is considering oil and gas exploration on nationally protected lands in the lower 48 states.

He broke a major campaign promise by choosing not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions as a pollutant.

Not surprisingly, polls show the environmental policy to be Bush's weakest area.

And while the energy crisis is largely a concern in the West, it looms as a national issue, and concern is growing over the administration's hands-off approach.

In foreign policy, he has dismayed many allies by acting unilaterally, angered both Moscow and Beijing and  he has overseen  sometimes-awkward shifts in longtime policy. But his stewardship of a spy-plane incident in China was widely praised, elevating his poll rankings.

That popularity does not extend to Europe, either in the high reaches of allied governments or on the streets where there remains palpable anger at the president's decision to torpedo the Kyoto treaty on global warming.

"That had a rather serious, negative impact," said an ambassador to Washington from a NATO ally, who like other foreign envoys interviewed for this story would speak only if they were not identified.

"We are convinced it will have a negative impact . . . (and we are) disturbed by the way they did it."

Noting the lack of consultation with allies, he added, "This unilateral approach gives a lot of concern in European countries."

There also has been some nervousness because the president has seemed less than sure-footed on some foreign policy issues -- stumbling into what seemed a significant shift in U.S. policy toward Taiwan, misstating the number of agreements between the United States and North Korea and publicly undercutting Secretary of State Colin Powell on Korea.

Less easy to measure is an area the White House claims as a signal success of the opening three months -- the political tone in the capital. But clearly, after eight years of a polarizing figure in the White House, the temperature here has cooled.

"It's the going of Bill Clinton rather than the coming of George W. Bush that changed the tone," Hess said.

Civility aside, Democrats complain that there has been no bipartisan approach from the president.

"I'm sad to report to you that in these 100 days, there's been no collaboration, there's been no negotiation, there's been no consensus-building," said Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. "It is my way or the highway every day."

Personally, Bush has displayed a style with flashes of other presidents blended into a persona uniquely his own.

From his father, he has a tendency to mangle syntax; from Bill Clinton, he borrowed the "permanent campaign," which has seen him break all records for early domestic travel; from Ronald Reagan, he has a determination to keep the conservative base content; from Dwight Eisenhower, he has a CEO-type White House staff and a pro-business agenda.

Uniquely his own is a discipline unseen in the Oval Office, perhaps since Calvin Coolidge. He refuses to get sidetracked on issues not of his choosing; he nearly ruthlessly deals with the mistakes of underlings or appointees; and he almost defiantly refuses to "make news" except on his own schedule.

Bush has resisted a role that was central not only to Clinton, but also to other presidents such as Reagan -- that of communicator in chief.

For the most part, he has chosen to remain silently in the background as the nation watched the unfolding of several dramatic, largely unscripted events -- school shootings, racial disturbances in Cincinnati, floods in Iowa and the return of the crew of the downed Navy surveillance plane from China.

Bush's reticence on those occasions "tells us he's a different kind of president," said Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley. "We have no indication so far that he plans to use the bully pulpit -- that he seems on the contrary very uncomfortable with it."

"He needs to understand, more clearly, that the presidency is not simply a prime ministership; it's also very much a ceremonial office," said Robert Dallek, a presidential scholar at Boston University. "That is part of the president's function -- to serve as the ceremonial voice of the country, to serve as a symbolic leader. . . . You can't shun that."

Wayne Fields, an expert on presidential rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis, said Bush risks public confusion about the direction of his administration because he lets too many others talk for him.

"There is an ongoing need in a democratic culture to have somebody pulling all of these different policies and different statements into some kind of whole," Fields said.

This also leads, suggested many analysts, to a problem unique to this presidency -- a persistent questioning of "who's in charge?"

Some see Vice President Dick Cheney as the real power; others see the invisible hand of business lobbyists.

"That is potentially disastrous," Buchanan said.

Remarkably, though, almost no analyst believes Bush is still plagued by the controversial nature of his victory in Florida, even though many had predicted he would be crippled by his lack of mandate and lack of a popular victory.

"That is, in some ways, a dead issue," Dallek said. "It's sort of like the Y2K crisis. Who remembers any more that it was a crisis? I think this Florida thing has faded from view."