First Hundred Days Spell Mediocrity for President Bush

Someone once said that “”history is a harsh mistress.”” George W. Bush, sitting in his office at the White House, must be contemplating those words. At the end of his first 100 days, everyone is giving him a failing grade: economists, environmentalists, Europe, China — even sectors of the Republican party. Bush is discovering that it is one thing to say “”I will be a leader”” in an electoral campaign and a completely different thing to actually be one.

These first 100 days have shown several telltale signs of things to come, and none of them are good.

It was clear by Bush’s choice of cabinet members that the time of the campaign had ended, and “”compassionate conservatism”” had ended with it. The Bush administration is possibly even more politically extreme and ideologically driven than the Reagan cabinet was, with the additional complication that 2001 is not 1980 and the world is no longer ready to put up with almost everything that comes out of the White House. The Soviet Union is gone, taking with it a good deal of the American grip on the West.

The decision of the new administration not to regulate carbon dioxide emissions made it clear that Bush’s industrial backers expect a lot in exchange for their support. This move also gives us some indication of how Bush will value his electoral promises and of what meaning the term “”lying”” will have in the new administration.

As late as March 4, Christine Whitman, the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, had made it rather clear that Bush would fulfill his promises, describing the carbon dioxide policy as if it were already implemented. Only 10 days later, Bush announced that he had “”changed his mind.”” Of course, the fact that the energy lobby group was one of his major financial backers had nothing to do with the decision.

It is hard not to notice that the party that conducted a ruthless campaign against former President Bill Clinton on the ethical basis that he “”lied to the American people”” (the legal case had a different basis) helped elect a president who, technically, has already done the same thing. Since the president is Bush, the Republicans have the useful excuse that he was not really lying — he simply didn’t know what he was talking about. Still, Democratic congressmen might want to take notice. We might be getting close to grounds for impeachment.

It is clear from looking at Bush’s attitude toward the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill that he intends to perpetuate the kind of exchange of political favors for money that characterizes his policy. Recently the White House supported a bill sponsored by Senator Hagel as a viable alternative to the McCain-Feingold bill. Hagel’s bill contains so many loopholes that it would virtually institutionalize soft money. The bill would place a cap of $60,000 per year on soft money to national candidates, lift every cap on hard money and allow unlimited soft money donations to state parties. If this is the kind of reform that Bush supports, his benefactors can rest reassured.

His behavior in the face of current stock market problems illustrates the fact that Bush and his administration don’t understand the way the economy has evolved in the last 10 years.

For the last few months, the United States has lived through the absurd situation of the “”recession that wouldn’t happen.”” The forecasts were gloomy, the stock market was falling, but now inflation is low, the growth, however small, continues and unemployment is under control.

Yet when an authoritative and reassuring voice in the administration would have helped restore confidence, our acting president was quoted blurting ominous warnings that made an already nervous economy even more jittery.

All this was a cold-blooded political calculation; Bush knows that the only hope his party has of winning the midterm elections is to have all the relatively wealthy, moderate Republicans go vote with fatter tax return checks in their pockets. Clearly Bush is willing to do whatever it takes to pass his huge tax cut for the wealthy, even if it means even deeper cuts to social programs like Medicaid, which the Bush administration is basically wiping out. If the economy is really going to be as bad as the president says, he should be busy reinforcing the safety net for those who will be hit the hardest, not dismantling what little net is in place.

With the Bush administration completely unprepared to deal with contemporary foreign policy, the Chinese were able to capitalize on their capture of the American spy plane and get pretty much everything that they wanted. American policy is completely determined by a domestic agenda.

Bush should take a more realistic approach and, if nothing else, ask himself what would have happened if a Chinese plane had been forced to land on U.S. territory while spying on us. And why do we expect the Chinese to act differently from the way we would have acted?

Every country spies on other countries and, occasionally, somebody is caught with his hand in the cookie jar. In this case, the rules of diplomacy suggest that you apologize like a good boy and go home. The administration only managed to give the Chinese a huge image boost in the diplomatic scene, all because the domestic political agenda of the Bush administration requires an external enemy to justify military build-up. No wonder the international stature of the American president is at a historical low.

Judging by the general tone of his first 100 days in office, Bush’s political personality is only a pale shadow of Clinton’s and can be summarized in the word “”de-Clintonization.”” It seems like the main activity of the Bush administration is to reverse Clinton’s executive orders; from privacy protection, the Kyoto protocols and patients’ rights to the presence of arsenic in drinking water, the Bush administration is dismantling everything the Clinton administration did to protect consumer rights, health rights and privacy rights.

If this can be expected from a business friendly, right-wing president, the beginning of such a presidency begs the question of whether Bush has a political personality. Will he be able to have a personality after his “”de-Clintonization”” program is over? What will become of a president that can only define himself politically in relation to his predecessor?

Many presidents have a rough beginning. The good ones learn from their mistakes, the bad ones keep repeating them. We’ll see what kind of president Bush is. Unfortunately for him, this time Dad’s influence won’t be enough to help him graduate.

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