This originally appeared in Newsday on April 29, 2001
This wasn't the first 100 days many people expected from President George W. Bush.
Lacking a mandate-indeed, having lost the popular vote-and facing an almost evenly divided Congress and a nation wary about his inexperience, the general expectation was that Bush would emphasize small, achievable programs, avoid the most controversial ones and attempt to build a consensus in the middle of the political spectrum.
Instead, he veered sharply to his right, taking pro-business and anti-environmental stands, making a huge tax cut the centerpiece of his legislative agenda, and generally kowtowing to conservatives on high-profile appointments and policy questions. His adherence to a conservative agenda rivals that of former President Ronald Reagan and stands in stark contrast to his father's more moderate politics.
It is a bold, interesting approach to his essential political dilemma. Rather than admitting his weak position up front, Bush is establishing hard bargaining stances and shoring up his conservative political base. The key question is: Will he compromise? And then: When and how? That is why it's difficult and not particularly fruitful to come to a hard judgment about Bush after 100 days in office. It's too soon. He's just in the middle of the opening gambits of his presidency.
The important answers will come later when Bush has to compromise with Congress on the size of the tax cut and the priorities in his budget. How much money goes to a tax cut and how much to providing a prescription drug benefit to the elderly, for instance? What is his plan for dealing with Social Security's future solvency problem? How much money will eventually go to the Pentagon for new weapons?
And while this editorial page differs with some of his policy priorities, especially the deep tax cuts, it seems to us that he has demonstrated some considerable strengths. He has an experienced, savvy staff and cabinet and intuitively understands the art of delegation. Also his political instincts are superb, much better than his father's. Bush has a natural quality, a self-effacing humor and low-key charm, that makes him attractive, a quality reflected in polls.
Also, Bush's rhetoric is often more moderate than his policies. As with Reagan, his policies may not seem all that extreme because they come wrapped in soft words and fuzzy images. It's only when he slips, as with his decision to allow higher traces of arsenic in drinking water-which followed a whole series of rollbacks on former President Bill Clinton's environmental regulations-that he reveals his real policy orientation.
In fact, the difference between the likeable guy-next- door and the retrograde policy advocate actually shows up dramatically in the polls. Bush's personal approval rating is just over 60 percent, but he has only tepid support, at best, for his actual policies. This should be of some worry to the Bush team.
In the end, presidents are judged on their ability to adjust to mistakes and changing events. There are some good signs here for Bush. One is that after the arsenic decision, he has been more careful about reversing Clinton initiatives. He is also talking about compromising on the tax cut. And he and his team did a pretty good job handling the spy plane crisis with China, although loose talk about defending Taiwan is worrisome.
But there is also a sense that the longer we watch Bush, the more his flaws will be exposed. Staff and organization will take him only so far. The second 100 days should be more revealing than the first.