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Things Have Changed...Since George Bush first waded into Washington politics

By Thomas E. CroninThomas E. Cronin teaches political science at The Colorado College and writes regularly on the presidency. / January 9, 1989



GEORGE BUSH came to Washington as a newly elected congressman 22 years ago this month. As he prepares to move into the White House, he faces a government and a political mood that are not unlike that of the late 1960s. And yet much in our political landscape is remarkably and irreversibly changed. Representative Bush from Houston heard President Johnson address the Congress in early 1967 and plead for financial and moral support for both his Great Society and his Vietnam policies. Congress was growing restless with both. Mr. Johnson eventually called for a limited tax increase to help fund these ventures - too little and too late.

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President-elect Bush faces a country and a Congress that are at least willing to listen to his priorities, yet there is a similar impatience that Mr. Bush may want to do too much with too little available money. Bush wants continued increases in defense spending and greater efforts in education, child care, anti-drug initiatives, environmental cleanups, and much more. But he has the same revenue squeeze Johnson faced. And Bush faces budget deficits that are larger than the entire budget was back in fiscal year 1967! Here are some other continuities Bush faces:

Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and the American people nearly always give new presidents a honeymoon in which to try to make their mark. Despite the negative campaign and the fact that Bush merely won a job rather than a mandate on Nov. 8, the new President has ample opportunity to emphasize new issues, push pet proposals, highlight new needs, and help shape the nation's policy agenda. The Democratic Congress will doubtless continue to snicker at Bush's ``flexible freeze'' strategies. Yet lawmakers will still look to the White House for policy leadership.

The American people generally give high marks to presidents during the first year but are much rougher on them the longer they remain in office. There is good will toward presidents. People want presidents to excel and succeed. Yet there is also a general skepticism about whether presidents and other nationally elected officials really listen to or serve the interests of the average person. An overwhelming number of Americans have said, in surveys, that generally speaking, elected officials in Washington lose touch with people pretty quickly. Most Americans also believe that the government is usually influenced by a few big interests looking out for themselves rather than run for the profit of all the people. Most Americans also think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right ``only some of the time,'' and that when something is run by the government it is usually inefficient and wasteful. These public attitudes have been pretty consistent since Bush joined the government establishment.

Congress and the federal bureaucracy are willing to work with a president who is honest, open, and willing to work hard at the ABCs of being a good president - the alliance-building, bargaining, and consulting that are crucial to presidential effectiveness. Bush knows this better than most of his recent predecessors. The lessons of Vietnam, Watergate, and the Iran-contra affair are clear, as are the reverse lessons from Johnson's Civil Rights Act and Ronald Reagan's budget-cutting and 1986 Tax Reform Act victories. The presidency is always a vulnerable office. A president who bypasses constitutional and accepted political processes weakens the office further and pays an enormous price. Those who appreciate and develop the requisite skills of listening and coalition-building usually succeed.

BUT Bush faces a political system that has changed in a great many ways from the one he first knew a generation ago. Here are some of the notable changes on the political landscape: