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BUSH: THE FIRST 100 DAYS

At 100 Days and Counting, Bush's Star on the Rise

April 29, 2001|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — When George W. Bush entered the White House 100 days ago, he faced a daunting challenge.

The 43rd president won his office with just 48% of the popular vote, his election secured only by a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Demonstrators jeered his inaugural parade; comedians lampooned him as a lightweight.

But last week, when a television interviewer asked Bush how he felt about his first three months on the job, the president replied cheerfully: "Pretty darn good."

The doubts about Bush's legitimacy are gone now; even his most zealous Democratic critics in Congress acknowledge that.

His policy agenda is making slow but visible progress, beginning with a 10-year tax cut plan that will likely exceed the $1.3 trillion Bush first proposed in his presidential campaign (even if it falls short of the $1.6 trillion he asked Congress to pass).

There have been missteps along the way ("Part of the newness of governing," aide Karen Hughes concedes) but no blunders big enough to derail Bush from his main priorities: the tax cut, restrained federal spending, education reform and conservative policy shifts on the environment and energy.

And even as he has pursued conservative ends, Bush has preached a conciliatory message. The most important achievement of his first 100 days, the president has said, is "a change of attitude," a start at making Washington "a better place."

After only 100 days, the depth and durability of those first steps remain debatable. But Bush's popularity, already solid among Republicans, has inched up among once skeptical independents and moderate Democrats. A Los Angeles Times poll released today found that 57% of the public approves of Bush's job performance, about the same level as his immediate predecessors, Bill Clinton and George Bush, 100 days into their presidencies.

"This has been an administration of astonishing professionalism, very remarkable," said Fred I. Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University.

After a nationally polarizing election campaign and an equally divisive recount and legal battle, he said, "Bush hit the ground running. He's made a pretty strong start.

"So far, the results are uneven. . . . But if he gets what he's shooting for, it could be comparable to the first year of Ronald Reagan," the most successful conservative president of modern times.

Only a few weeks ago, the diagnosis would not have been so upbeat. In March, Bush wrestled with bad economic news, mounting criticism from Democrats about his swing to the right on environmental issues and grumbling from Senate Republicans about his inflexible approach to budget negotiations. His popularity ratings began to sag.

But then the administration, learning from its worst misstep, tightened ship in a way that helped prevent further embarrassments.

On March 20, Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Whitman announced that the administration had decided to revoke one of Clinton's last regulatory actions, a tougher standard for arsenic levels in drinking water. Coming after several similar reversals of Clinton policies, the arsenic decision was widely interpreted as a dramatic abandonment of public health concerns.

Inside the White House, Bush's political aides were "apoplectic," said one official who attended that morning's staff meeting chaired by chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr.

"We were all surprised by the arsenic story," Hughes said. "It was the first indication that there were things out in the bureaucracy that we didn't know about. . . . We had to get on top of this."

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Hughes, Card and senior political advisor Karl Rove convened a series of emergency meetings to get the message to every federal agency: Regulatory changes had to be coordinated with the White House. Hughes addressed a full meeting of the Cabinet, one of only three Bush has held, to make sure officials understood the need to avoid blindsiding the boss.

Only a week later, another regulatory time bomb surfaced: a proposal in the Agriculture Department to scale back inspections of ground meat for salmonella, a longtime demand of the meat industry. This time the White House quashed the idea in less than a day.

There followed, in the two weeks before Earth Day, a series of highly visible pro-environmental actions by Bush, capped by a telegenic Rose Garden ceremony to announce his embrace of a hitherto obscure treaty to ban 12 lethal chemicals.

"Now a Republican administration will continue and complete the work of a Democratic administration," Bush said, flanked by his two most moderate Cabinet officers, Whitman and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "This is the way environmental policy should work."

Hughes and other Bush aides insist Bush didn't change his course on any decisions to blunt criticism of his environmental rollbacks. But they acknowledge that they deliberately gave his more "centrist" actions a higher profile than they might have received otherwise.

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