Winner's prize: low expectations

A few modest successes may be all that's needed for Bush or Gore to start a productive term.

Americans' expectations for the next president could hardly be lower.

The election has, if nothing else, made clear he has no broad mandate upon which to act, and the extended fistfight in Florida has left the party faithful feeling battered, even resentful.

Add to that a truncated transition period and the difficulty of enlisting a fractious Congress, and it appears the next leader of the free world will barely be able to lead his own inaugural parade.

Yet it is when expectations are lowest that people are most likely to be surprised. If the new president can eke out even a few tiny successes early in his administration, say analysts, he might yet start to build momentum toward a productive term.

Moreover, one school of thought even argues that a divided populace will enhance his likelihood of success. Under this theory, the central message of the election - as uniformly split as it was - is the demand for political unity. Whoever governs next has, in essence, been ordered by the voters to seek across-the-aisle compromise.

For a Bush presidency, "expectations are lower than they ought to be," says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University. If Mr. Bush can pull people together across party lines - and show he's got more smarts than late-night comedians give him credit for - there's hope for a successful presidency.

Al Gore's best hope for exceeding expectations, some analysts say, is to transcend his image as a partisan fighter and make connections with a few moderate Republicans.

Hope and glory are only recently absent from this political season. Just 19 months ago, when Bush made his presidential debut in Iowa, expectations for him were so high within the GOP that the Texas governor, tongue in cheek, dubbed his plane "Great Expectations."

He's been knocked down a few pegs since then - a natural function of the campaign trail. But the indecisive election outcome and the unusual post-election drama have further diminished any hope that Bush would take Washington by storm.

Yet as Bush proved during the presidential debates, when failure is expected, even a half-decent showing can be a win. Heading into those face-offs, the governor's staff successfully lowered expectations for Bush and raised them for Mr. Gore. Afterward, when the Texan was still standing, most pundits called victory for him.

History, too, carries a precedent for surprise performances. After a season of gridlock under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, "suddenly there was a breakthrough in Ronald Reagan's opening months," and he was able to win big tax reforms, says William Leuchtenburg, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mr. Reagan suddenly became a man with momentum.

Like Bush, Reagan also fought stereotypes of being an intellectual lightweight. The latest Letterman and Leno jabs about Bush are that he's getting "intelligence briefings." ("Some of these jokes just write themselves," Letterman quips.) Jokes aside, Bush "has the personal skills to go out and sell things to people," says Mr. Arterton. "I think we'll see a lot of small groups of lawmakers going down to the White House and ... being impressed and going away ready to do something."

But there are caveats. Perhaps the biggest question is Bush's relationship with Republican ideologues in Congress. "The moment either [Bush or Gore] is seen as trying to appease the extreme wing of his party, he's done," says Washington pollster Del Ali.

Also, the Clinton impeachment saga has produced a reservoir of resentment among Democrats, which could swamp Bush's efforts to move legislation. Leuchtenburg notes, however, that Democrats "have high hopes" for taking over Congress in 2002 - and may work with Republicans on some issues.

As for Gore, few pundits expect him to be able to build bipartisan goodwill. "The right wing of the Republican Party has been so aggressive ... that he'll face a sense of 'Get Al' - the impeachment atmosphere all over again," predicts Arterton. Still, Gore might find common ground on issues like Social Security and a prescription-drug benefit.

While the Washington environment will be daunting for either man, it also contains many possibilities. The budget surplus, for example, enables the president to do some extra horse trading in return for legislation.

The slowing economy may also offer opportunity for presidential leadership. "We're in an economy where people now want to focus on what works," says Nancy Snow, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles. That, she says, dovetails with the message from voters this year: "They're saying, 'Let's put aside ideology and do what works.' " If the new president follows an ethic of practicality, she says, he might just surprise the nation with what he accomplishes.

Staff writer Mark Sappenfield contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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