THE first 100 days of a presidency are thought to be especially important. In this span, with the whole world watching, the new president first reveals what is to be his administration's distinctive form and style. George Bush is now roughly four-fifths of the way through his ``hundred days.'' What has he shown us? Perhaps most striking is the reminder of just how silly it was to assume that his presidency would be an extension of one of his Republican predecessors. Ford II and Reagan III were the models most often suggested. But the American presidency is far too personal an office for this ever to have made much sense. Every incumbent has had his own personality, style, skills, and experience - which, for good and ill, have distinguished his handling of the office.
Bush I is a magnification of the characteristics of George Bush. Orthodoxy and professionalism are, then, its most substantial features, conciliation its distinctive style, personal ties and loyalties the core of its modus operandi.
Throughout his career, George Bush has been inclined to political orthodoxy. He first ran for president in 1980 as a defender of traditional Republicanism, against the heterodox views of Ronald Reagan. If there was a revolution to be made, it's fortunate for everyone that Mr. Bush lost his 1980 bid. He wasn't the man to set a new course then - and he isn't one to do it now.
Labeling a political leader conventional shouldn't be seen as criticizing him. Sometimes the task at hand is one of refining established positions rather than setting new ones. In the Reagan years, stands once considered unconventional and right-wing became mainstream Republicanism. Even those who strongly defend the approaches Reagan pioneered agree they require adjustment and modification. In 1988, Republicans were looking for a president who would consolidate their new orthodoxy.
Bush's success or failure hinges on whether he can achieve this consolidation. His first 100 days aren't seeing a surge of new initiatives, and his next 1,360 won't, either. Faulting a leader who's elected to fine-tune and consolidate for not sending a big batch of bills up to Capitol Hill is just plain silly.
There has been some argument thus far as to how sure-handed the Bush administration has actually been. Unquestionably, though, reflecting the president's own extensive governmental experience, his administration seeks to establish itself on the claim of professionalism and competence. And, reflecting an evident feature of Bush's personality, it places great store in the rhetoric and symbols of conciliation rather than confrontation.
George Bush is the most unremittingly gregarious President in modern times. It's natural enough, then, that he has made such little touches as guided tours of his private White House quarters and an endless string of lunches and dinners with reporters part of his operating style. Martin Anderson, a longtime aide to Ronald Reagan, has described Mr. Reagan as a chief executive distant from even his highest-ranking assistants and ``cheerfully ruthless'' in dealing with them. In contrast, Bush's more personal approach stresses colleagueship and loyalty.
How does the public rate Bush's performance in the 100 days? Early on in most presidencies, many are inclined to give the new leader a chance, while others are not yet decided. Both of these responses have been evident in Bush's first months. Still, the proportion thus far saying they disapprove of his handling of the job of president has to be seen as extremely low.
For example, in the Gallup poll of Jan. 24-26, just 6 percent disapproved of Bush's performance, while 51 percent approved and 43 percent had no opinion. In mid-February, Yankelovich/Clancy/Shulman recorded disapproval at 10 percent. In early March, Gallup found 63 percent approving and only 13 percent disapproving, as more and more people reached an initial judgment. In the immediate aftermath of the defeat of John Tower's nomination to be secretary of defense, when Bush was not getting the best press, another Gallup survey, done for Newsweek, showed the public overwhelmingly approving his performance - 62 to 16 percent.
The most striking feature of Bush's early ratings involves the high marks he is getting from blacks. Most polls have, in fact, found little difference in the proportion of whites and blacks registering their approval. Blacks had been far less supportive than whites of Reagan. Just 23 percent of blacks, compared with 78 percent of whites, approved Reagan's presidency in late March 1981 - and margins of difference like this one persisted throughout his entire eight years.
In general, Bush's style of open-door conciliation has - early on, at least - sharply reduced group differences in how his presidency is assessed.