Chris Weigant: First 100 Days Retrospective, Part 2: (HW) Bush, Clinton, (W) Bush
[Chris Weigant is a political commentator.]
Welcome back to my pre-emptive strike on the thousands of journalists preparing their "Obama's 100 Days" articles for next week. How many of them will count wrong and publish one day early (his first day in office, depending on how you measure, ended at noon 1/21/09)? Time will tell. So while I will be publishing my own take on "Obama's First 94 Days" tomorrow, we continue today with a look back at President Obama's immediate predecessors. Yesterday's article examined Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan's first 100 days (and how they were seen at the time in the media). Today we take a look at George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.
George H.W. Bush
George Herbert Walker Bush had a tough act to follow. He was so patently not Ronald Reagan, or even "Reaganesque" in any way that he actually had to battle the "wimp" label during the election. Not exactly what you would expect after Reagan. But he was Reagan's veep, and therefore was entitled to the throne, many Republicans felt. Bush waged a vicious campaign, including the now-infamous "Willie Horton" ad.
But the conservatives in the Republican Party (it's hard to remember, but Republicans actually had what would today be considered moderates in their party at the time) weren't ever truly convinced that Bush was one of them. In fact, if he had been a Democrat, they would have quite freely bandied the word "elitist" around. Although Bush was a former head of the C.I.A., he didn't seem sufficiently enthusiastic about the conservative agenda. Bush tried to lay this to rest with a "Read my lips: no new taxes!" pledge, but that would later return to haunt him (and deny him re-election), after he gave in and signed a tax hike the Democratic Congress sent him.
Bush, surprisingly, didn't face much of a daunting array of crises when he took office. The times were fairly boring, which is why America elected a very boring president (unless you consider Ford boring, Bush was the most boring man to take the job since that icon of ennui, Eisenhower). The economy was doing well enough, the Soviets were coming to realize their system was collapsing, and Saddam Hussein was still our buddy in the Middle East. And, true to form, Bush's first 100 days in office were pretty boring as well.
The Independent ran an article summing up Bush's first 100 days entitled (in that full splendor — splendour? — which only the British can pull off): "Bush's next 100 days to be more active than his first: The time has come for President Bush to get out of his deckchair and become more engaged in the momentous world events which unfolded in his first 100 days in power." Here are a few excerpts, from April 29, 1989:
By all accounts George Bush's first 100 days, which are completed today, have been some of the most uneventful, unimportant and boring in American presidential history. They have felt like a thousand zzzzzs, writes Hendrick Hertzberg in New Republic.
The little Bush has accomplished in foreign policy — a bipartisan accord with Nicaragua and pressing Israel and the Palestinians for concessions — have been eclipsed by the swirling political events thousands of miles away in Moscow, Peking, Tokyo and, most recently, Bonn. The most encouraging image to contemplate is that Mr. Bush's time in the deckchair is over. The political calendar for early summer guarantees that Mr. Bush will become at least more engaged in, if not more responsive to, these momentous happenings during his next 100 days.
. . .
He will be under extreme pressure to take advantage of these opportunities to use the 'bully pulpit'. East-West issues are traditionally make or break issues for American presidents and, even at a time when the average American worries more about drugs, the environment, family values and education than about superpower relations, treaties to reduce nuclear weapons and America's leadership of the Nato Alliance can still put fire in the bellies of politicians and the masses of Middle America.
Mr. Bush's critics advise: don't hold your breath. And, certainly, there has been no indication that the pragmatists in the Cabinet, including James Baker, the Secretary of State, Dick Cheney, the Defence Secretary and Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, have anything more up their sleeves in their Strategic Review than the already mentioned 'status quo, plus'. In contrast to what's happening in Moscow, nothing could be more modest.
. . .
Mr. Bush's most obvious problem is himself. His style is stewardship rather than leadership. As a candidate he exploited the 30-second TV sound bite as much as the next man, but he has not done so as President. He has appeared on the evening news half as many times as Ronald Reagan during his first 100 days. This reluctance to engage in image-making is nothing new; he behaved the same as Vice-President.
The second problem is psychological. It is not Mr. Bush's problem alone, but America's. Having lived with the Cold War for 40 years, Americans find the prospect of the war ending so unsettling that, even though the phenomenon has been staring them in the face since glasnost burst out into the open, they still demand time to adjust.
. . .
The more profound, but delayed, debate about America's new role in the world will be forced into the open. And there are many itching to do battle. 'The Germans need a cold shower and a dose of reality . . . we are not going to be nickeled and dimed over the nature of our armed forces,' said a former Reagan official. The question is where in the melee will we find George Bush?
The New York Times, in an article titled "President Bush's Hundred Days; Seen Against Ronald Reagan's 2,922 Days" gave Bush 633 words, around a tenth of the size they devoted to Reagan's 100 days. On April 23, 1989, they wrote:
George Bush reaches his hundredth day in office Saturday and already the pundits ask: George, what happened to what you call "the vision thing"? There's no agenda, complains one political scientist. No clear goals and convictions, writes another; the President drifts while Mikhail Gorbachev catches the wind. By their lights, it has been a bumbling baptism.
Franklin Roosevelt's first Hundred Days had urgent meaning in the cold and hunger of 1933. Since then, the term has become a ritual basis for judging Presidents. Mr. Bush cannot escape that judgment, but at least it can be realistic. Rather than measure Mr. Bush against an abstract standard of agenda and performance, it makes more sense to measure him, like all Presidents, against the climate and politics of his time.
In that context, Mr. Bush is doing a lot more than anyone expected. At the very least, he has moved skillfully in his first 100 days to erase the worst legacies of Ronald Reagan's 2,922 days.
George Bush operates in a calm climate. True, there are serious problems and major opportunities. But no national emergencies confront him at home; no immediate crisis, thanks largely to Mikhail Gorbachev, challenges him abroad.
The latest New York Times/CBS News Poll sheds light on that point. Asked to name a problem that Mr. Bush should make an all-out effort to solve, 9 percent named the budget deficit, 3 percent mentioned war and peace and 1 percent — an astonishingly low 1 percent — cited the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, 18 percent said drugs, 9 percent the homeless, 3 percent the environment. When the issues like peace and prosperity on the political A list flag, issues on the B list like drugs rise to prominence.
Apart from the bruising fight over John Tower, politics has been similarly peaceable. Mr. Bush won no mandate for change and hasn't pretended to Congress that anybody gave him one. As he suggested on Inauguration Day, the country and Congress are weary of ideological combat and eager for approaches that work.
So he has moved to defuse controversy and in the process shed a ton of Reagan baggage. On Central America, he cut a deal with Congress that would send humanitarian but not military aid to the Nicaraguan contras — removing with one stroke an issue that virtually destroyed Mr. Reagan's relations with Congress.
Mr. Bush broke cleanly with his predecessor on important environmental issues like acid rain. He quickly faced up to the savings and loan crisis. He retreated from Mr. Reagan's unrealistic demand for increased defense spending. He offered an approach to third world debt that finally accepts the principle of debt forgiveness.
These adjustments to the Reagan legacy did not result from the sort of grand plan so favored by students of the Presidency. This has been an improvisational 100 days. Nor have the measures been announced with great fanfare — perhaps out of deference to Mr. Reagan, perhaps because George Bush lacks a gift for theater. But the list is nonetheless impressive.
Excessive caution, of course, exacts a price. Mr. Bush's budget is mostly mirrors. For days, he remained stubbornly unmoved by the Alaskan oil spill. And after weeks of orchestrating public interest — one of the few times he has done so — he produced an ethics bill that was more loophole than law. Here were three chances to demonstrate leadership, and three chances missed.
It may be that Mr. Bush will never be that kind of leader, seizing issues by the throat like Lyndon Johnson. George Bush's Hundred Days suggest that he's happiest as a reconciler of contentious people and issues, as much concerned with cutting losses as with winning big. He may not be strong on the vision thing. But so far, he's no slouch at dealing with what's right in front of America's eyes.
But the lesson here for today's journalist and journalism consumer is that Bush's term was actually not all that boring at all. The first 100 days may have been fairly sleepy, but it was not an accurate indication for what was to come. On Bush's watch, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated — which ended the Cold War, but brought on a new series of challenges. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and what now will be known as "the first" Gulf War happened. Hussein was allowed to stay in power, and Bush's approval ratings hit an all-time high in the history of presidential polling (90 or 91 percent, depending on the poll) during and immediately after the war. Bush was seen as such a strong candidate heading into the 1992 elections that many prominent Democrats declined to run, figuring they'd have a better chance after Bush's second term, in 1996. This allowed Bill Clinton to come from nowhere and win the nomination. Bush's approval ratings by the end of his term had cratered, and his tax hike had disgusted many conservatives. So Bush, during his presidency, experienced tremendous highs and crushing lows. Not what you would have expected if you just looked at his first 100 days in office.
The more I examine the history, the more I am becoming convinced that while it is an interesting benchmark — and the only one of its kind (do we have thousands of articles for the "second 100 days" or the "first 500 days"?) — looking at a president's first 100 days is nothing more than an exercise in showing how Franklin Delano Roosevelt was such a Herculean figure during his first 100 days that nobody is ever going to beat his record. Because drawing conclusions as how the first 100 days will measure up against the rest of a president's term seems to be a fool's game.
Bill "Bubba" Clinton (he seemed OK with that nickname, so I mean no disrespect by using it here) was anything but boring. Elected in large part due to one of the strongest third-party challenges in American history (H. Ross Perot won no electoral votes, but he did win an astounding 19 percent of the popular vote), Clinton had to battle early on cries that he did not have a true "mandate" from The People. And his election, complete with "Bimbo Eruptions," all but guaranteed that this was not going to be a boring president — later proven all-too-embarrassingly true.
But Clinton famously got elected because "It's the economy, stupid," and he faced a daunting array of crises on his plate when he took office — an economic crisis, a world very nervous about how Russia and other former Soviet states were behaving, and an absolute lack of an energy policy that hadn't been written in the 1970s.
Clinton had a pretty dismal first 100 days in office. The "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" compromise on the question of gays in the military pleased no one. Clinton did manage to get some impressive things through Congress (or at least started on the track to approval), such as his first budget outline, and the push (which had stalled, but would ultimately be successful) on NAFTA. But he also alienated Democrats in Congress with his handling of health care reform, handing it off to Hillary, which ultimately would fail spectacularly.
Clinton had a headwind against him. He had what his wife later called "a vast right-wing conspiracy" working actively against him since before he even took office, which led to dark and ugly rumors about him stretching back to Arkansas. The upshot of this was Ken Starr's Whitewater investigation, which dogged the Clinton presidency into his second term in office, and led eventually to the Monica Lewinsky revelations.
But all that was still in the future. The media, after his first 100 days in office, were almost uniformly gloomy. The Christian Science Monitor had the most prophetic headline: "Clinton Slip-Ups May Open Way For GOP Wins," which ran on April 29, 1993:
Ninety-nine days into the Clinton presidency, Republicans are pawing the ground, eager for the next elections, encouraged by events.
The Democratic White House is thrown off balance. President Clinton pushes for rapid passage of his budget, aid for Russia, and sweeping health-care reform. Instead, the national spotlight shines relentlessly on the war in Bosnia, gay rights, and higher taxes.
Mr. Clinton, the "new Democrat" from the new South, risks being labeled by critics, including Ross Perot, as just another tax-and-spend liberal politician.
Leon Panetta, director of the Office of Management and Budget, warns that Clinton's economic plan, assailed by Republicans, is in serious danger. So is the $ 1.8 billion aid program for Russia. As for the historic trade deal with Mexico and Canada, Mr. Panetta calls it "dead." The president, blaming overwork, says that Panetta is unnecessarily discouraged.
House Speaker Tom Foley of Washington, reflecting new caution among Democratic leaders, suggests Clinton slow down health-care reform until other formidable issues are resolved.
Hearing all this, a number of Democrats on Capitol Hill are worried. They complain that Clinton has muddied his message. They say privately that the president has failed to motivate his White House team with a "central mission" the way Ronald Reagan did in 1981.
. . .
Republicans look at Clinton's problems and rub their hands. Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, already talks about the GOP regaining a majority in the Senate in 1994. They now are outnumbered by Democrats, 57-to-43.
The New York Times was critical as well, although they went for the standard headline "Bill Clinton's Hundred Days," which ran on April 29, 1993:
All Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have had their reputations stretched or shortened by a Procrustean journalistic device known as the "first hundred days." The hundred days test is, of course, fundamentally silly. As Arthur Schlesinger pointed out on the Op-Ed page recently, Roosevelt assumed office at a time of such calamity that Congress "dared not say him nay." No President since has faced a comparable crisis.
Yet so durable is the standard that not even the White House, which might prefer to forget some of Bill Clinton's first hundred days, can ignore it. To mark the occasion Mr. Clinton's p.r. apparatus churned out a little pamphlet called "Season of America's Renewal," the title lifted from the President's hopeful address to Congress in February. The Republicans responded with a less flattering exegesis, "On the Wrong Track."
The hundred days tag, according to most accounts, was invented by newspapermen, who compared Roosevelt's domination of Washington in the spring of 1933 to another 100-day period embracing Napoleon's escape from exile, his army's triumphant sweep across France and his shattering defeat at Waterloo. Democrats like to recall the triumph; Republicans enjoy the Waterloo bit.
The truth of Mr. Clinton's hundred days is rather more provisional. There have been several large accomplishments. He steered his $1.5 trillion budget outline through Congress in record time, and responded boldly and generously to Boris Yeltsin's cry for help. There have also been less dramatic gestures that nevertheless bespeak a kinder, gentler and less ideological Administration, including the family leave bill and the dismantling of the Reagan-Bush restrictions on abortion.
There have also been many missteps, beginning with his snakebit search for an attorney general and continuing on through the bungled sales job on his stimulus package. One result has been a flurry of articles bemoaning a lack of focus in the White House and a general dulling of the sharp sense of purpose outlined in Mr. Clinton's campaign.
No less a loyalist than Leon Panetta, his Budget Director, told reporters on Monday that Mr. Clinton must do "a better job of picking and choosing the battles he wants to go through." Specifically, Mr. Panetta implored Mr. Clinton to delay health care reform until the fall, and said that piling a revolution in health care on top of everything else, including new taxes on energy and Social Security, could invite general legislative carnage and threaten the deficit-reduction strategy on which Mr. Clinton has staked his Presidency.
Mr. Panetta's advice was rejected out of hand by Donna Shalala, the Secretary of Health and Human Services; the President's wife and health care expert, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and then by the President himself. Their view is that health care reform is an essential component of any serious deficit reduction strategy, and they may be right. Even so, Mr. Panetta is hardly alone in his belief that Mr. Clinton, a noted trencherman, may have heaped far too much on his plate at this early stage.
Mr. Clinton won the election in part because he focused on one message ("It's the economy, stupid"), despite his policy-wonk tendency to move in a thousand directions at once. It's still early, and a hundred days really don't mean all that much, but one lesson he can learn from his slump in Washington and at the polls is not to confuse motion with progress.
The Washington Post went for doom-and-gloom in their headline: "President Clinton's First 100 Days; Pessimism About Nation's Direction Is Growing Again Among Voters," which ran April 29, 1993 as well:
The first hundred days of Bill Clinton's presidency have diminished public expectations that he — or anyone else in Washington — can do much to turn around a country that seven out of 10 voters think is going in the wrong direction.
Whatever the voters may have believed last winter about what Clinton and the new Congress would do to fix the economy, reduce the federal deficit and put the country on a different path, they are noticeably more doubtful today.
"I had some high hopes," said Linda Brantley, a Milwaukee postal service investigator and Clinton voter, "but they were shot down kind of quickly. His first 100 days, I'd have to give him an F. He's trying to please too many people all at the same time, without really looking at the heart of the issues."
A Washington Post-ABC News Poll shows Clinton's overall approval rating holding fairly steady, but there is little sense of accomplishment and a reversal of the early optimism about ending gridlock in Washington.
Congress's ratings are worse than Clinton's, and Republicans appear to have damaged themselves by moving into open opposition to the president. But the main conclusion of the poll and voter interviews in three swing states is that six months after the "big change" election of 1992, many voters feel that they are living through a bad dream they've had before.
They are more skeptical that Clinton has the capability or the political skill to accomplish what he promised during his campaign. And they fear that the problems Clinton faces are bigger and more difficult than either he or they believed right after the election.
"I'll put it this way," said Robert P. Bosch, a retired electrician from Santa Ana, Calif., who supported Clinton last November. "He was the lesser of two evils. We couldn't afford four more years of Bush. I thought this man, a younger man with new advisers, could get in there and do a better job. I made a mistake."
. . .
[Clinton] has converted few of George Bush's or Ross Perot's supporters. And many of those who backed him nervously and reluctantly last November express second thoughts about whether he is up to the job.
On Tuesday night, The Post convened a focus group of voters in Milwaukee. They are the kind of people Clinton needs to persuade if he is to enlarge his 43 percent election plurality into a governing majority. They either voted for him — some with reservations — or for independent candidate Perot. But their report cards for the new administration were universally low.
"I'm fairly well disappointed in his performance," said Ted Lontkowski, a printer who supported Clinton. "D minus."
"A very poor job," said Ruth Pagelow, who works at a nursing home and switched her vote from George Bush in 1988 to Clinton last fall. "All I hear is he's raising taxes. I don't hear his spending cuts."
Colleen Casey, a purchasing manager who supported Perot, said, "He's doing a poor job, a D minus. I'm getting pretty cynical on the entire process and all the candidates. We've heard about balancing the budget for three administrations at least and no one is able to do it, Republican or Democrat."
As impatient as they may be for progress, voters recognize the artificiality of a 100-day deadline for a new administration, with many saying it is too soon to draw conclusions about the new president.
But when asked which of the last three presidents Clinton most resembles, the unanimous answer in Milwaukee was Jimmy Carter — a one-term president.
Voters are significantly more downbeat about the direction of the country than when Clinton came to office — with 71 percent saying it is on the wrong path. Increasingly they are worried that Clinton's answers for the nation's problems may be the wrong ones.
On a list of issues, ranging from improving the economy to dealing with the deficit to dealing with problems of the middle class, expectations of substantial progress have dropped about 10 percentage points since January.
Overall, three in five voters approve of the job Clinton is doing as president. But many of them are not certain they know where he wants to take the country.
. . .
Although the Post-ABC poll shows that a majority of voters believe Clinton is focused on big issues, voters fear his agenda has become too ambitious and a number volunteered the issue of gays in the military as one they thought Clinton should have avoided at the beginning of his term. They prefer that he focus more narrowly on the economy and on the deficit.
Among many voters, perceptions of Clinton have changed since the campaign. "He does a great job of campaigning. He does a good job of explaining things to the public," said James Mroz of Fullerton, Calif. "But he doesn't follow through . . . . He's not tough enough."
On the positive side of the ledger, Clinton is seen by many voters as a president who is in touch with average Americans and who has the interests of the entire country, not just the rich or the poor, in mind. "I've seen him in neighborhoods or in schools," said Jess Galvan, a street maintenance worker from Fullerton, Calif. "That's good. To me, he's like one of us."
. . .
The voters saved their most scathing comments for Congress, with roughly two in three giving Congress negative ratings so far.
"Something happens to them the minute they get inside the Beltway," said Tim Coffman, a mortgage banker from Lakewood, Ohio. "They forget their roots."
Larry Stone, a retired corporate executive in California, said he understood why Republicans filibustered Clinton's stimulus package, but said, "Politically it disgusts me. Talk about gridlock — we're in it. It doesn't matter who's in office."
Abby Cantor of Valencia, Calif., agreed. No fan of Clinton, she said Congress must share a considerable portion of the blame. "He's fighting a Congress that doesn't want to change. It's going to take more than just Clinton to break the gridlock."
While those comments about Congress are interesting to read today, you have to remember that this was a Democratic Congress they are talking about. Clinton's biggest problem was gridlock with his own party on Capitol Hill. This gridlock would lead to record losses for Democrats in the 1994 elections, and Clinton would never again have a Congress dominated by his own party. However, he did manage to get a lot of things done in his eight years, and for all the doom and gloom early on, he left the country's economy booming and with his approval ratings extremely high — even after all of the scandals.
Once again, it's mighty hard to prophecy an entire term (or even two) from the first 100 days of any president. The most accurate prediction I found was the one that talked about the midterm elections — a much shorter timespan when the 100-days performance benchmark could actually have a real influence.
George W. Bush
George "Dubya" Bush's election was one of the biggest political dogfights in American election history. His opponent got more of the national popular vote, and the question of how to count the ballots in Florida moved up to the Supreme Court, which handed the election to Bush over a month after Election Day. Half the country was outraged at this, and resulted in his presidential limo being egged on Inauguration Day.
You'd think with such a shaky grip on how he entered office, Bush would have been a bit cautious about claiming any sort of mandate. You would be wrong. Bush entered office and brushed aside the media's obsession with a "mandate" (which they dogged Clinton with both terms, as Clinton — due to Perot being in the race both times — never cracked the 50 percent mark in the popular vote).
Bush actually pushed back on the media's insistence with the "100 day" mark, and attempted to get them to measure him at "180 days," but in the end capitulated and invited every member of Congress over to celebrate his 100 day mark. The media began the "100 day" countdown immediately when he took office, which seems to be how they're going to handle every president in the future. This self-referential navel-gazing is evident in the media's coverage at the time.
Bush did a fairly good job of laying out the agenda he thought he would have time to get passed. It was markedly conservative, and even more markedly anti-Clinton. On several issues, Bush seemed to go with a knee-jerk stance of "whatever Clinton did, we're going to do things 180 degrees the opposite." This would have severe ramifications later on his handling of the threat of terrorism.
But in the Spring of 2001, long before September, none of that was evident. On the foreign policy front, Bush had just squared off with China over an incident with a spy plane, and was given mostly high marks for his handling of the incident. His signature foreign policy issue was going to be missile defense — a genuflection to Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" program. Terrorism was simply not on the media's (or the public's) radar.
The Washington Post ran their article "Reluctantly, Bush to Mark His First 100 Days in Office; Milestone Date Yields A Flurry of Judgments" on April 24, 2001, which I excerpt to show what I mean about the media:
President Bush has invited all 535 members of Congress over to the White House for lunch next Monday to celebrate his first 100 days in office, certifying his concession to an arbitrary but unavoidable marker that his aides had once hoped to ignore.
The "Hundred Days" as a storied benchmark dates to Napoleon Bonaparte's rule of Paris in 1815 before the arrival of King Louis XVIII, and has served as a milestone for presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt won passage of more than a dozen New Deal bills at that point in his first term, in 1933.
"Hey — we should get an extra 36 days," said a Bush aide, referring to the Florida recount litigation.
Historians maintain that the checkpoint has been a poor indicator of how presidents wound up being regarded. And it does not mesh with the congressional calendar, since the fate of a president's opening agenda is not clear until the August recess.
"It puts a really unnatural pressure on presidents," historian Michael R. Beschloss said. "But it's genetically encoded in people who study presidents and write about them."
Some Bush strategists were arguing even before he was inaugurated that he should be judged on the accomplishments of his first 180 days, a conceit they officially gave up when they decided to hold the luncheon for Congress and give Bush a particularly busy schedule in the week leading up to Sunday, Day 100.
"The reality was that the media would do 100-day stories, whether we wanted to say 180 or not," a top Bush official said.
The hints have been inescapable. CNN put a "First Hundred Days" banner on its coverage of Bush, beginning on Inauguration Day. MSNBC followed two days later with a stylized "The First Hundred Days," and on Jan. 29 began airing a nightly program of that title with New York Daily News columnist Mike Barnicle as host.
The rest of the article is mostly spin, from Democrats and Republicans alike. The New York Times did a better job, on April 29, 2001, in their article titled "Mr. Bush's Beginning," although even they started off defending the 100 days mark itself:
We are not among those who complain that the tradition of measuring the first hundred days of a presidency has turned into an empty ritual. It is a convenient way to demarcate a period in which a new chief executive and the American people learn things that cannot emerge in the campaign vortex. The glimpses we get often can be valuable and even prophetic. Before the end of his first 100 days as president, Franklin D. Roosevelt rescued the banking system and won approval of 15 major laws. John F. Kennedy suffered the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Ronald Reagan proposed a sweeping economic program and survived an assassination attempt. Bill Clinton struggled to enact his economic policies and health care reforms amid the chaos created by his swirling personal style and distracting issues like gays in the military.
By contrast with the examples above, George W. Bush has had a placid 100 days. Yet as we measure them today, the most striking feature on the domestic front is the emergence of a deep-rooted, unnuanced and sometimes almost truculent conservatism from a man once regarded even by many Republicans as a moderate. As for international relations, Mr. Bush passed his first major test through a combination of caution, luck and a commendable ability to take good advice from a sound foreign-policy team. In his unscripted public performances, Mr. Bush has seemed clumsy and amateurish by the standards of the four presidents mentioned above. But his sunny self-confidence, even his penchant for bankers' hours and long weekends, seems to sit well with many Americans. It is a relief, they seem to be saying, to have a president who is not so tiring and omnipresent as Mr. Clinton.
The Inner Conservative
Mr. Reagan concentrated so fiercely on cutting government spending and taxes that he was willing to set aside the harsh agenda of the socially conservative members of his so-called base. His aides worked hard to minimize his image as uncaring and disengaged from the problems of working Americans. Mr. Bush seems to feel no such qualms, as he has installed regulatory and economic policies geared toward corporate interests and tax policies designed to comfort the inheriting class. Sometimes there seems something almost Oedipal in Mr. Bush's revitalization of Republican stereotypes, as if by invoking them he can avoid the conservative revolt on taxes that upended his father's presidency. It is not simply that Mr. Bush is pursuing the biggest tax cut since the Reagan era. He is seeking to overturn nearly a generation of advances in the environment, repealing job safety rules and trying to deregulate industry in areas ranging from consumer product safety to monopoly concentration. On abortion, whereas Mr. Reagan's first Supreme Court appointment was the moderate Sandra Day O'Connor, Mr. Bush seems bent on producing a Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade and lower courts that will enhance states' rights at the expense of federal protections.
The one leavening element in his approach has to do with education, where Mr. Bush's call for more federal spending and higher standards embodies an activism and interest eschewed by previous Republican presidents. In a separate area, his troubling proposal to help the poor by providing aid to religious organizations is still being formulated.
Although we would be happy to be proved wrong, our conclusion from the record of the first hundred days is that on domestic policy, Mr. Bush will go to the right every chance he gets. Those who want to see more fiscal and social moderation can only hope that someone in the White House, perhaps his political guru Karl Rove, will have a better ear than Mr. Bush for what the public will tolerate in the environmental and regulatory arenas.
Dealing with China provided the most serious foreign-policy tests for Mr. Bush. Over all, he has taken a more careful approach than the one he signaled in his first statement on the downed spy plane and his varying statements last week on the defense of Taiwan. His handling of the spy plane incident and the limitation of arms sales to Taiwan suggest that despite his domestic conservatism, he might in foreign relations follow the tradition of the pragmatic internationalist wing of the Republican Party rather than that of its cold-war-era hawks. His reaching out to allies in the Americas for a trade deal carries the same message.
But the issue of how Mr. Bush will handle America's role in the world is far from settled. One situation to watch will be the eventual outcome of the tussles between Secretary of State Colin Powell as the diplomatic moderate and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who seems inclined to analyze the world in terms of historic or emerging military threats. Right now, Vice President Dick Cheney is perceived as more in Mr. Rumsfeld's camp, and the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, perhaps more in Mr. Powell's.
. . .
In January it was a cliche to say that expectations were low for Mr. Bush, who lost the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore. Today the general public appears to have moved past the ballot-counting disputes and grown comfortable with Mr. Bush's legitimacy as president. That represents a considerable political accomplishment in only three months. Many citizens seem to like his personality, but at the same time a survey by the Pew Foundation says that he is becoming "defined more by his policy positions than his personality traits."
This suggests to us that barring a major international crisis, the biggest problems Mr. Bush faces have to do with his outmoded environmental policies and a tax plan that, to borrow one of Mr. Bush's favorite terms, is in itself a form of class warfare. The move to lower acceptable levels of arsenic in drinking water was a ludicrous public-relations blunder on the order of the Reagan administration's declaring ketchup to be a vegetable. But the reversal on carbon dioxide emissions, the humbling of Christie Whitman as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the threats to Mr. Clinton's forest protection plan, the weakening of the Endangered Species Act and the renouncing of the Kyoto agreement on global warming depict a mindset that is anything but comic. The decision to have Mr. Cheney, a petroleum millionaire, form a national energy policy behind closed doors echoes Mr. Clinton's mistake on health care and also, in our view, misreads the public mood. This country is already safe enough for oil and mining companies. It is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that needs protecting.
On taxes, the second hundred days will give us a reading on Mr. Bush's real feelings about bipartisanship and his potential as a deal maker with Congress. Until the last couple weeks, for instance, he has demanded that his proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut over 10 years be passed in full. Though he has support for that tax package in the House, he must now decide whether to pare it back enough to win over the moderate Democrats and two independent Republicans whose opposition has blocked Senate approval of the tax cuts at Mr. Bush's figure. Perhaps he is haunted by his father's troubles with the tax issue, but Mr. Bush might already have a politically salable tax cut if he had not followed Mr. Cheney's counsel to play tough with the Senate.
It would be smarter politics for Mr. Bush to go with the moderates, accepting a smaller tax cut and more spending for schools. He could then work with the same moderates to skew the cut away from awarding more than 40 percent of its benefits to the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers. Perhaps that is where his heart is, but there are more votes among working-class and middle-class taxpayers who really deserve relief.
Style and Character
At the level of manners, Mr. Bush has kept his promise to bring "honor and dignity" back to the White House. But he needs to declare true independence from Washington's culture of influence peddling by embracing campaign finance reform and by every now and then saying no to the oil, gas and timber industries and the capital's corporate lobbyists. It seems paradoxical to say so, but Mr. Bush seems comfortable in his skin as a person and yet still unsure of himself as an explainer of his presidency. He came to the White House with brief schooling in public affairs, and he is clearly not fully at ease in detailed discussions of his policies. When you parse his sentences, it is still quite striking how many of them turn into verbal collisions. But he would not be the first successful president lacking gifts of articulateness.
Aside from that knee-slapper about Karl Rove keeping Bush from straying too far to the right, a fairly good look at Bush's first 100 days. Bush later proved to be as politically hard right as people were beginning to realize, on both the domestic front as well as in foreign policy.
But the Bush presidency is one of the best examples why the first 100 days, while it may be an interesting thing to write about, is no real predictor of how your presidency will be seen in the future. No matter how presidents are seen barely three months into office, events can overwhelm whatever plans they may have for the rest of their term.
Nowhere is this more evident than looking back at Bush's first 100 days, because Bush will be forever remembered for: (1) September 11, 2001, (2) the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, (3) Hurricane Katrina, and (4) the collapse of the economy.
Meaning the whole "first 100 days" game is fun to play for journalists and readers alike, but we should all keep a healthy amount of perspective when doing so.
Having said that, I invite everyone to check back tomorrow for my article on Obama's first 100 days. Hey, if I have to write about it, I at least want to get out front of the pack of other commentators baying at my heels.
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