First 100 days of Bush II: Reports from along the way

President Bush has few achievements yet, but he is controlling the agenda

On a West Wing wall outside the press secretary's office hung a photograph of George W. Bush on Inauguration Day. He is staring through the bulletproof glass shield of the reviewing stand, supposedly watching a parade pass. But the shield is so rain-splattered it is opaque. Mr. Bush has been president only a few hours, and already it is impossible for him to see what lies ahead.

It's a cheap metaphor, maybe, but it is arguably the true theme of any presidency: Onward Through the Fog.

If it's not one thing, it's another. Congress trims your tax cut. Europe protests your climate policy. China "detains" a US aircrew. Mere feet from your office sits the White House press corps, a pack of hounds waiting to bay.

In the first 100 days, a president hardly has enough time to find the Situation Room, much less establish a place in history. But hints of tone, direction, and personality can all be gleaned from studying presidential beginnings.

By comparison with Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, Bush has not changed the law of the land. He has yet to hold a White House ceremony to sign legislation from his own agenda. But his Cabinet was approved without major incident, his signature tax cut is moving forward, and the airmen and women are home.

So far he appears to have defied expectations that he would move slowly or be politically weakened by the closeness of his election. Still, with so much history to come, "it's hard to see what monuments he's going to leave," says historian William Leuchtenberg.

The story of the Bush presidency began with bad weather and memories of hanging chads. On Sunday, Jan. 21, his first full day in office, Bush was reminded of this when he went to church.

As will be the case for the rest of his time in office, Bush was shadowed by a press pool, a small group of designated journalists who monitor the president's every public move and report back to their colleagues.

Pool Report No. 1

Sunday, Jan. 21, 2001

Prayer Service

At the outset, we were told that POTUS [the president of the United States] stopped by the Oval Office Saturday evening at 5:39 p.m. to take a look at it.

The motorcade departed the White House at about 8:10 a.m. heading for the Washington National Cathedral.

The congregation burst into applause as the Bushes entered. POTUS listened attentively during the proceedings, occasionally smiling and exchanging a word with his family.

The thrust of [the Rev. Franklin] Graham's sermon was that King David also came to power after a great controversy, but he was able to unite the kingdom.... Graham said he has seen "hopelessness" in many parts of the nation, despite its material wealth. He told Bush, "You will also have the opportunity to ignite the soul of the nation...."

Bush might not have picked the word "ignite." The Clinton presidency created many small fires, not the least of them last-minute pardons that dominated news for weeks. Early in his term Bush has benefited from stylistic comparison. Exciting is out, boring is in. Perhaps the nation is just ready for a rest.

That does not mean that he is, in fact, more popular than President Clinton was at this point. A just-released Pew Research Center survey finds that Bush has a 56 percent job-approval rating, similar to the 55 percent Mr. Clinton polled in April 1993.

But disapproval of Bush is lower than it was of Clinton, at 27 percent versus 37 percent. He gets strong support from self-described Republicans and only tepid opposition from most Democrats. "In addition, the public is largely unaware of his unpopular stands on the environment, which is muting criticism in this area," says the Pew study.

Voter judgment of Bush as someone who would be an enjoyable dinner companion at Outback Steakhouse has thus remained fairly constant since he came into national public view.

"He comes through as someone who you'd like to coach your kid's Little League team," says historian Michael Birkner at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

Bush's evident enthusiasm for children and educational policy has not hurt this perception. Texas reporters have long said that education was the issue that engaged him the most during his time as a governor. In Washington, it is the one area in which most Democrats and the new president have found at least some common ground.

Trip to Little Rock

March 1, 2001

Pool Report No. 1 (Lakewood Elementary)

President Bush dropped into two classrooms....

A big sign with yellow letters on a blue background said, "Mrs. Elliott's 5th Grade Welcomes President Bush." A sign in the back said, "Top Ten Ways to Succeed in Fifth Grade." The president sat in front of a rack where book bags were hung. Jansport seems to be the "in" label in Mrs. Elliott's class....

Twenty children ... were arrayed in front of him on a carpet dominated by primary colors.

"Nice to see you," said the president. "Sorry to be so disruptive." He asked if any of the children read more than they watch TV. "At least they're honest," he said, taking note of the dearth of hands.

If Bush is not Clinton, neither is he George Herbert Walker Bush, his father.

The current President Bush seems to have learned a two-part lesson from his father's one-term presidency: Don't lose touch with the people, and don't lose touch with conservatives in particular.

Bush has already traveled to 26 states as president, far more than his father did during his first 100 days, and more than even his peripatetic immediate predecessor. While many of the Bush trips are to push his tax cut, in general they also add up to an outreach program designed to keep him from appearing too Washingtonian and out-of-touch.

As for conservatives, their perception is that - finally - they have helped elect a Republican president who does not treat them like the party's crazy aunt. Bush's political director Karl Rove regularly attends Washington meetings of conservative coalitions.

"The president saw what happened to his father, when the way was paved for Pat Buchanan's challenge [from the right]," says Gary Bauer of American Values, based in Arlington, Va. "They don't want to repeat that."

But for conservative groups, this new access carries a penalty. Donations flowed freely when the Democrats controlled the White House. Today, "almost every conservative-oriented organization is experiencing softness in fundraising," says Mr. Bauer.

The flip side of this situation is that the party in exile is gearing up to raise its own funds. The nature of Bush's disputed victory in Florida, combined with Cabinet picks such as conservative John Ashcroft for attorney general and other agenda items, has fired up the Democratic base more than at any time since Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House.

"We're in full campaign mode now. I want a four-year, full-time, all-out campaign effort," said Democratic National Committee chief Terry McAuliffe, who now travels virtually every night to organize that effort.

His old friend Clinton is mad about Bush's first 100 days - mad at the reversal of the regulation on arsenic in drinking water, mad at Bush's pullout from the Kyoto treaty limiting greenhouse gases. "But he's not going to go engage Bush. It's the president's turn," said Mr. McAuliffe.

Unlike Clinton, Bush has stuck to a limited agenda. Clinton was everywhere, on almost every issue of the day. Bush is focusing on tax cuts and apparently worrying less about his presence on the evening news. His focus on a few big things was apparent even on baseball opening day.

Saturday, April 7, 2001

Pool Report 4-7-01 No. 1

Arriving at the new domed ballpark, [Milwaukee's] Miller Park, POTUS went first to the clubhouse of the visiting Cincinnati Reds. The players gaped. "Should we stand here and stare at each other?" Bush asked, before working the room....

Terry Laschen, an older fellow and a Brewers assistant who counts pitches for all of $9,000 a year, told Bush: "Thanks for the tax cut."

POTUS turned the man to the pool and had him repeat the line. "He's not the top 1 percent, either," Bush said....

Bush's first Easter as president came only a few days after China finally released the 24-person air crew detained for nearly two weeks after their surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter in international airspace. Bush received relatively good marks from both Democrats and Republicans for his low-key handling of the crisis, which belied the harsh rhetoric about China he used during the campaign.

Since then he has agreed to help sell submarines to Taiwan and virtually promised US military forces would support the Taiwanese if China invaded. For the administration, it has been an early lesson in the power of foreign problems to disrupt their plans - and the real nature of US interests and leverage.

Sunday, April 15, 2001

Pool report No. 1

Church

No news.

The outdoors sunrise service was held on the grounds of the Canaan Baptist Church, just down the road from the front gate of the Prairie Chapel Ranch....

The worshippers, sitting in metal folding chairs, faced east, looking directly at the church's cemetery. About 15 minutes into the service, the sun rose, basking those in the front rows with direct sunlight. (For the first morning since we've been here, there was no early-morning fog or low clouds.) The pavilion sits on a rise ... affording worshippers a 360-degree view of the gently rolling countryside.

To the south lay a vast field of blue bonnets and Indian paint brushes in full Texas glory.

In the closing prayer, Deacon Jerry Gauer said: "We pray for our country ... We also celebrate this morning the fine young men and women who are home this morning in America, celebrating Easter with their families and not in China...."

Please rest assured that your God-fearing pooler prayed for all the Fourth Estate.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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