Bush receives analysts' praise for early months of presidency

Tax cut, China rift considered successes

April 22, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Even before George W. Bush took office, his advisers were trying to discourage efforts to put his first 100 days under a microscope.

Far better to wait, they suggested, until he'd been on the job for at least six months.

But by most measures, Bush has gotten off to the best start of any president since Ronald Reagan, eclipsing his immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, and his father as well.

As the 100th day approaches next week, Bush is getting high marks not only from fellow Republicans, but also from some Democrats.

"He has handled one foreign policy crisis well, [and] he has started to dominate the national debate and national attention," says Donald A. Baer, communications director in the Clinton White House. "On all of those fronts, he's done quite well."

Exceeding expectations, Bush won initial approval in Congress for most of his $1.6 trillion tax cut, his signature proposal. He put together a widely praised Cabinet, and he ended a tense standoff with China by gaining the safe release of a captured U.S. aircrew.

Perhaps most important, he avoided serious blunders and major embarrassments. Predictions that Bush would not enjoy a traditional honeymoon because of the prolonged post-election fight turned out to be wrong.

By contrast, the opening months of Clinton's first term were marked by a series of distractions and setbacks, including a controversy over his plan to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Bush's father saw his nominee for defense secretary, John Tower, rejected by the Senate.

Bush has done well, "given the fact that he was not on top in popular votes," says Ken Khachigian, a veteran of the Nixon and Reagan White Houses. "The really smart thing that they've done is, they've acted like they won by a landslide. I think Bush is a pretty smart character. Reagan may have been unparalleled in his ability to sell and communicate, but this guy ain't doing bad."

Using successes as a model

Bush is sticking tightly - some say too tightly - to a blueprint drafted well in advance. He has made a conscious effort to profit from, and play off of, the mistakes of predecessors while using their successes as models.

"Bush has tried to define himself vis-a-vis Clinton, vis-a-vis his father and vis-a-vis Reagan in different ways," says Jeff Bell, a Republican strategist. "He's very much an observer of previous presidents."

He has also been lucky, as successful politicians often are.

In his campaign speeches, which called for restoring honor and dignity to the presidency, Bush signaled his intention to exploit comparisons with Clinton's weak personal image. But the breathtaking flood of criticism over Clinton's last-minute pardons drew that contrast more sharply.

Clinton "left a pretty low bar to jump over; I think it made a big difference," Khachigian said. "I think Bush is determined to be dignified and presidential, without being stiff and patrician. And so he's more Midland [Texas] than Groton [Conn.]"

The symbols of this new decorum (including an Oval Office dress code requiring neckties and banning blue jeans) have gotten attention. To further highlight the contrast with Clinton, Bush has avoided major fund-raising activity. (He'll begin in earnest next month.)

Staying out of limelight

But it is the administration's broader public relations strategy that has gotten positive notices in political circles.

Clinton injected himself into nearly every major national event, while Bush has not. And unlike Clinton, who brought the rapid-response culture of the presidential campaign into office, Bush isn't trying to "win" the daily battle for coverage on the nightly TV news, notes Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles.

"Bush's low-key style and staying out of the vortex on a lot of these swirling issues seems to work very effectively for him," he said. "His point of view is: We're in here for the long haul, and we're going to try to win these battles in their totality and not try to have all these interim public-relations maneuvers."

During the standoff with China, Bush retreated into the background. After the crew was released, he chose not to steal the spotlight by rushing to greet them.

"Clinton would have been out there with the servicemen, but that's just not President Bush's style," says Jim Brulte, the Republican leader of the California Senate, who is close to the White House. "He's not a grandstander or a showboater."

Bush's relatively low profile may also reflect a lack of experience in dealing with some of the issues coming before him. He seemed ill at ease on the few occasions he spoke in public about the China standoff, though he defied pressure from some conservatives to adopt a tougher stance and presided over a successful resolution.

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