Political fray may derail 'White House Inc.'

Bush's corporate style of governance bumps up against divided politics of the nation's capital.

For all its emphasis on business-like efficiency and long-term planning, the White House may be able to take its corporate model of governing only so far.

Ever since Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party and Democrats took control of the Senate, the Bush administration has faced new political competition on Capitol Hill.

Yet the White House has been slow to adapt. In a speech yesterday, a tanned president outlined a summer legislative agenda that has little likelihood of getting through Congress in its present form - raising fresh questions about how well the more command-and-control style of corporate governing works in the consummate political city.

"It's like going along as AT&T for years and suddenly finding that you have competition," says Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "The Democrats have become a major new presence in the market."

When team Bush first took office, Washington was dazzled by the efficiency of this group of former corporate executives. They rolled out their agenda with assembly-line precision, and in less time than it takes to say "first president with a masters degree in business administration," George W. Bush pushed through a huge tax cut.

Now, however, the corporate model of governing faces a crucial test. Efficiency may have been the watchword for a White House operating in a one-party town, but, in the months ahead, adaptability and compromise could become more important - qualities that don't always come easily to corporate leaders.

"The CEO in a company is someone who travels in a corporate jet," says John Kessel, a presidential scholar at Ohio State University. "He says, 'I want this done,' and it gets done. He is essentially responsible to no one."

Heeding those other constituents

While a president may have Air Force One to jet about in, his power is limited by politics on the Hill, by public opinion and special-interest groups.

In all of those areas, the scene is far different now than when Mr. Bush took office. Not only do Democrats control the Senate's agenda, but moderate House Republicans, many of whom face competitive reelections, are paying more heed to their constituents than to the conservative behests of the president - especially in environmental and energy policy. The president's job-approval rating, meanwhile, dropped by 4 to 8 percentage points last month.

Upsetting White House plans, the Senate recently passed patients-bill-of-rights legislation that differs from the president's in a key area. For their part, House Republicans have thwarted the president on his energy plan, voting three times to ban drilling - off Florida, in national monuments, and in the Great Lakes.

"The one thing about the corporate style, sometimes it can be a little insensitive," says Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut. "The administration has a lot more to do on the environment." He calls global warming "a national crisis", an issue the White House is "asleep" on.

In his speech yesterday, Bush tried to give legislators a push in the direction he wants to go: toward a patients rights bill that restricts the right to sue, toward his faith-based initiative, toward his version of education reform. But on all fronts, it's a tough fight for the White House.

A recent Gallup poll shows that, even if they don't know all the details, Americans trust Democrats on patients rights more than Republicans - by a margin of 10 points. The faith-based initiative is proving not only controversial on both sides of the aisle. It's also not a top priority on the Hill. The energy plan has already come under fire, and while education reform enjoys strong bipartisan support, it's being held up over funding.

In fact, funding in general looms as another issue where Congress and the White House are in conflict. Democrats warn that the president's big tax cut - combined with shrinking budget surpluses - are endangering programs, while the White House blames both parties for pork-barrel spending.

"What Democrats have figured out about Bush is that he's vulnerable on environmental policies, he's vulnerable on health, and he's vulnerable on the tax cut," says Mr. Light.

Suddenly, the White House "can't control the marketplace, and it's not doing very well with surprises," he says.

Stressing a softer side

Others disagree. Roger Porter, former adviser to Bush Sr., says the president's decision to scale back drilling plans in the Gulf of Mexico shows he's flexible. "I would be hard pressed to fault their capacity for adapting," Mr. Porter says.

Even so, the White House is planning adjustments to stress the president's "compassionate" side. Aides say that may include measures related to family values, parenting, mentoring, and education. Mr. Shays also senses flexibility in the White House stance on campaign-finance reform. "They are very open-minded about signing a bill," he says.

In general, say observers, the corporate model worked best early on in the administration, when speed was important in rolling out programs. One aspect of the more buttoned-down culture that hasn't worked as well is secrecy - especially as the White House has conducted its military and energy reviews. The General Accounting Office is investigating who Vice President Dick Cheney met with as he fashioned the energy blueprint.

Still, the Bush administration does know that even companies have shareholders they have to answer to. "They're beginning to catch on," says Charles Jones, a presidential scholar at the University of Wisconsin. "No president can simply plow ahead without paying attention to what's going on on the Hill."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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