Our agile, flip-flopping president

Why was I not surprised when President Bush said the other day that, as a NATO ally, he was not ruling out sending American troops to Macedonia to prevent a civil war? True, President Clinton had been widely criticized for barring the use of American ground forces in Kosovo (welcome news to then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic). But Mr. Bush campaigned on the idea of withdrawing American troops from the Balkans, leaving "our European friends" to do the heavy lifting in that violence-prone region.

The reason I was not surprised at the apparent flip-flop is that President Bush, in his first six months in office, has displayed an amazing agility in climbing down from unproductive positions, no matter how ardently they were originally espoused.

Remember when the president held the Navy's firing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico, to be indispensable, at least until a substitute could be found? That did not sit well with Hispanic Americans, whose votes the administration is courting. And so suddenly, while traveling in Europe, the president set a two-year limit to get out of Vieques, apparently with little or no consultation with Congress.

Remember when the president was staunchly opposed to energy price controls? Then last month the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission imposed price controls that the White House, with its flair for euphemism, called "market-based mitigation."

Remember when the president campaigned for school vouchers? He has now accepted a compromise education bill without school vouchers.

He has also given up to Congress on issues like steel import quotas and ethanol subsidies. And although he has flatly threatened to veto a patients' bill of rights, which would permit lawsuits in state courts, don't be surprised if there is eventually a compromise that he will not veto.

The president does not always cave. He stuck it out on tax reduction and substantially won his case. He is - so far, at least - standing firm on developing and deploying a missile defense system. But on many matters he is more flexible than many expected.

Why? The president says he pays no attention to opinion polls. Yet it must be of some concern to him that the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows his approval rating at 50 percent - the lowest presidential rating in more than five years - with his party weak on healthcare, energy, the environment, and the economy.

The Journal's conservative columnist Paul Gigot says, "Bush isn't one to go down in glorious principled defeat." I guess I was unaware of that when Bush was campaigning on unshakeable principles.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst for National Public Radio. His memoir, 'Staying Tuned: A Life in Journalism' (Pocket), has just been published.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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