The President as `Insider'

PRESIDENT BUSH won election to the White House just a year ago. How is he doing? Have there been any surprises? What can we say about the future of his presidency based on his performance thus far? Nearly everyone predicted over a year ago that a Bush administration would be noted for its pragmatism and political orthodoxy. And so it has been.

There surely hasn't been any ``Bush Revolution'' or New Deals or Great Society. Pundits searching for a label might have to settle for the Beige or Bland Deal.

Critics characterize this as either the public opinion poll presidency or the Revlon (``it's all cosmetics'') presidency. And there is some truth to these charges.

Still, Bush's conciliatory and compromising style have served his interests well. His high approval ratings and his successes in foreign policy doubtless please him.

The key to understanding President Bush, is that he, in marked contrast to Reagan and Carter, is an insider, a Washingtonian. He served in Congress. He served at the highest levels of government under three previous presidents.

Insiders, as political scientist Bert Rockman notes, seldom if ever are bold reformers challenging the system. No, insiders are cautious, pragmatic, and push incremental changes if at all.

An insider appoints fellow insiders (which Bush has done) and a government of insiders is not a government of ideological fervor or bold imagination. Its cautious approach will usually look boring in part because it is boring. Bush prefers to call it prudence. Yet whether called timid or prudent, Bush is seldom in a hurry to rush in with new plans or sweeping change.

A second key to understanding Bush's first year is the necessity for bipartisan approaches. He won a decisive electoral victory for himself but his party lost seats in both houses of Congress. If his personal style already didn't encourage him to reach out and work with congressional leaders the partisan arithmetic in Congress requires it. Bush has reached out and worked with Congress on a whole host of issues such as Nicaragua, the drug program, the pay raise bill and several other issues.

Bush has dug in and fought the Congress. The minimum wage and the proposed capital gains tax rate reduction are examples. Yet even here Bush eventually reaches out and is willing to fashion a compromise. Bush also reached out and worked effectively with the nation's governors at his education summit.

Every new president is in effect invited in his first year to share his national agenda with an attentive nationwide audience. Bush has done this but in a decidedly muted voice. You have to squint with your ears to sense any vision of programmatic leadership.

He has plainly moderated, except on abortion, the strident conservative rhetoric of the Reagan administration. He is for an increase in the minimum wage. He is more serious, if not a crusader, on a number of environmental issues. He may have been slow in taking advantage of the momentous thaw in the Cold War - yet his NATO proposals and his planned meetings with Gorbachev are a contrast to Reagan's early ``evil empire'' approach.

Bush's solid public approval ratings are doubtless due in part to his more centrist positions. Clearly, however, Bush is advantaged also by disarray and scandals in the Democratic Party, the impressive economic situation, and the very welcome developments in Eastern Europe.

What does all this suggest for the next years? He may continue to bore us - yet perhaps it will be like the boredom of the Eisenhower and Ford years. Bush is unlikely to surprise us with bold, novel or newsworthy measures. He will eventually have to raise taxes yet he'll postpone it as long as possible and even then try to disguise it. The biggest surprise of the Bush years may be a significant deduction in defense spending.

Meanwhile, deficits grow, environmental matters worsen, the drug war languishes on, and Bush's responses to developments in the Soviet bloc seem lame. Thus far the Democrats have wholly failed to capitalize on these failings. They are hard pressed to do so. Their problem now and for the past fifteen years is how not to appear as the party of tax increases and irresponsible defense policies. In fact many Democrats do want to raise taxes and do want to cut defense spending - and do want to invest in education, environmental protection, public works, research, and a more serious war on drugs. Politically, however, Democrats probably cannot embark on such a program and seek to win back the White House again. Hence the Democratic vision is hazier than Bush's.

Thus, at least for the time being, Bush controls the national policy agenda - and his go-slow efforts to balance continuity and change with a minimum of risk and with no increases in taxes plays well.

Is this the leadership America needs? Probably not. Yet it appears to be the style of leadership most Americans like.

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