Bush marks relatively low-key 100 days

April 18, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt began his presidency with a rush of legislative proposals in 1933, a yardstick of presidential vigor, if not accomplishment, has been a new leader's initiatives and record in his first 100 days in office.

Three later Democratic presidents - John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton - all sought to evoke the same image of a new administration rushing pell-mell out of the starting gate to bring about change.

So did two subsequent Republican leaders - President Ronald Reagan, with his talk about "draining the swamp" of big government in Washington, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with his "Contract with America" aimed at doing much the same.

By contrast, President George W. Bush, while also saying he has come to the White House to change the partisan climate in Washington, is approaching the end of his first 100 days primarily with one single clearly identifiable objective - his $1.6 trillion tax cut. And in this undertaking, he has pursued a most partisan course that has been met in return by partisan Democratic resistance.

In the process, Mr. Bush has certainly demonstrated considerable energy and haste, perhaps because he sees the 50-50 partisan split in the Senate in peril, with two elderly Republicans of failing health - Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Jesse Helms of North Carolina - grimly hanging on. But there is no flood of major new initiatives of the sort LBJ launched with his "Great Society" agenda or Mr. Gingrich with his "Contract," together with a highly promoted 100-day countdown.

One reason for Mr. Bush's apparent disregard of the 100 days yardstick may be the impediment of the stalemated election, which ran well into December before the Supreme Court stepped in and decided it in his favor. It produced a shortened transition period, with early gestures toward organizing an administration before the court acted decisively met with sharp criticism from some.

Another reason appears to be Mr. Bush's management style, which, on the surface anyway, is laid back and - with the exception of his high-profile peddling of his tax cut around the country - unobtrusive. After eight years of the Clinton presidency, in which the man in the Oval Office seemed to be everywhere all the time, weighing in on all matters large and small, his approach seems to be a return to business-as-usual.

The various reversals of Clinton executive orders in the environmental field have been made by Mr. Bush without fanfare - that is, until they have been discovered by the media and distressed Democrats and environmental activists.

Mr. Bush's cautious handling of the surveillance plane episode, largely taking a back seat to diplomatic efforts under Secretary of State Colin Powell, steered him past the potential shoals of a major foreign-policy diversion in his single-minded pursuit of the tax cut.

He is not out of the woods on it yet, with critical conversations yet ahead with the Chinese on air surveillance understandings, but at least he doesn't have a developing hostage crisis on his hands.

Whether not-too-distant history has anything to do with Mr. Bush's behavior isn't clear. But he is old enough to remember (or at least read about) how in 1961, on Kennedy's 88th day in office, an ill-conceived foreign policy adventure derailed his cocky, upbeat opening rush of assertive leadership.

On April 17, 40 years ago yesterday, Cuban exiles armed and supported by the young Kennedy administration made a disastrous landing on the beaches of Cuba's Bay of Pigs, where they were repulsed by the forces of Fidel Castro.

It was an effort to overthrow Mr. Castro that had been conceived and planned in the Eisenhower administration, but carried forward by the young president on the advice of his top military and intelligence officials. The defeat was not only a military one, but a severe political setback for Kennedy that put the brakes on his hopes for an unassailable first 100 days.

So a relatively quiet start for a new administration has its virtues. Mr. Bush approaches the end of his first 100 days unspectacularly on course in a political environment that will give him all the trouble he can handle without foreign-policy complications.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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