Bush Earns High Marks After First Year in Office

President has won over skeptics and slowly accumulated support

IN his first year as president, George Bush has defied much of the conventional wisdom about new presidents: that they should push major legislation through Congress early before their honeymoon of public approval wears off, that foreign policy concerns can come only after working through a major domestic agenda, that a popular president should appeal directly to the public over the heads of Congress, that honeymoons wear off by the end of the first year. These are the lessons of different presidents for different times.

Ronald Reagan, like his hero Franklin Roosevelt, was a strong president that changed the direction of government.

Bush can be compared with Harry Truman, trying to carry out Roosevelt's New Deal.

``If you look at successors to transformative presidents,'' says Yale historian Stephen Skowronek, ``it's amazing how well Bush is doing.''

Such presidents usually get bogged down in domestic problems they inherit, he says, and have trouble establishing themselves - a problem that beset Bush early in his campaign.

Reagan's ``revolution'' to shrink government was launched at a time of great public dissatisfaction with the economy and with America's role in the world. Bush took over during the nation's longest economic expansion - still continuing - and after eight years of Reagan's assertiveness abroad.

``Bush is remarkable for his perception that he doesn't have to replicate Reagan in many respects,'' says Jeffrey Tulis, a political scientist at the University of Texas. ``He has a certain sense of the cycles.''

One would be hard pressed to call this a year of legislative achievement. Congress voted with Mr. Bush less often than any other postwar president in his first year in office, according to a Congressional Quarterly study.

But the Bush administration has not attempted to achieve an ambitious agenda, and the public is not signaling a demand for one.

Rather, Bush's role seems to be to consolidate the changes brought by Ronald Reagan and broaden their acceptance.

And Bush himself has been slowly and steadily accumulating support. He has won over skeptics until - in the afterglow of success in Panama - more than 80 percent of the public views him favorably.

Bush's high public approval derives in part from his ``status quo'' presidency, notes political scientist Everett Carll Ladd.

``Strong leadership divides,'' he says. ``It attracts people, but it also puts people off.''

Bush has done relatively little to put people off. However, polls that probe for intensity of support find Bush approval less committed than Reagan's.

Bush's aptitude in foreign affairs suits the times. He has devoted more of his first year to foreign affairs than have recent presidents. He has won the respect of foreign policy professionals for his competence and pragmatism.

His sophistication sometimes has drawn criticism. While many in Congress called out for a strong moral stand against China after the Tiananmen Square violence, Bush's response was pragmatic. He tried to avoid strong public condemnation and sent aides to talk to the Chinese secretly.

Yet Bush was also capable of rallying the public with the bold stroke. He was called timid this fall for his skepticism of reform in the Soviet Union. Then he announced an informal summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta. He took flak for not supporting a failed coup in Panama this fall, then acted forcefully by invading Panama.

Although Bush has not departed wholesale from Reagan foreign policy, he has proven flexible as world conditions have dramatically changed.

``I'm glad we had Bush and not Reagan in office in the momentous year of 1989,'' says Robert Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former staff member of Carter's National Security Council. ``He is appropriately pragmatic at a time when the world will not suffer ideology.''

One of Bush's first moves was to defuse the most divisive of Reagan's foreign policy positions - the Nicaraguan contras. As a result, the contras have almost entirely disbanded.

In Central America and Europe, Bush has worked to give regional democracies a greater role in guiding change. So far, this policy has been most effective in Europe, where Western countries are playing a stronger role than the US in aiding Eastern economies.

Underpinning Bush's popularity is the sense of personal decency he conveys. He appears to be well liked personally by world leaders as well as members of Congress. His is an informal style that sometimes seems seat-of-the-pants and has him calling British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at night or dropping by the House gym to socialize.

He is an experienced and confident pragmatist, Dr. Tulis says. ``He seems not to have deep doubts about his instincts. At the same time, he seems not to have a very clear picture of what he wants to do.''

The lack of what Bush once disparaged as ``the vision thing'' continues to enter into most conversations about Bush.

Reagan was a hard act to follow, with his gift for inspirational rhetoric - what Dr. Ladd calls ``a robust sense of the nation that in his best speeches came forward.''

Bush is far more articulate than Reagan in casual settings like press briefings. But Bush is in some ways more like Eisenhower. Says Ladd: ``You didn't get from him a ringing endorsement of the American idea.''

To Dr. Tulis, this is a void in the Bush presidency that allows his actions to be interpreted by others. Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political scientist at Gettysburg College, puts it more strongly:

``There is no presidential leadership being portrayed.''

One illustration is when the networks showed a split screen of Bush engaged in casual banter with reporters and the bodies of US servicemen from Panama arriving at Dover Air Force Base. Bush aides complained to the networks for the embarrassing juxtaposition, but when bodies arrived at Dover from the Grenada invasion in 1983, Reagan had been there to greet them.

If Bush's legislative victories were lean last year, Democratic leaders in Congress fared little better. He succeeded in breaking a decade-long logjam on renewing the Clean Air Act. It is likely to pass in the next session. He went to the mat to get a cut in the capital gains tax. He failed, but had majority support in both houses. The cut may be harder for Congress to resist in this election year.

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