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THE NATION / THE PRESIDENCY

100 Days on the Job, Still No Hard Choices

April 29, 2001|ERIC COHEN | Eric Cohen, former managing editor of The Public Interest, is a resident fellow at the New America Foundation

WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush, in his address to Congress last February, stated that "an artist using statistics as a brush could paint two very different pictures of our country." After his first 100 days in office, one could, in similar fashion, paint two very different pictures of Bush's presidency and the Republican Party he leads.

The first picture is one that Bush would like: a post-Cold War, post-Bill Clinton, conservative reformation in the making. It is the picture of a New Republican leader with the wisdom to remake his party from within, putting to rest the anti-government zeal of the Newt Gingrich years in favor of wise government, wisely implemented. It is the picture of a triumphant tax cutter, who has forced Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) into ideological retreat, getting them to agree to a $1.2-billion tax cut that Democrats not long ago would have called a "risky tax scheme." It is the picture of a political innovator, whose inaugural address reconnected the nation's politics to the nation's conscience and whose faith-based initiative is perhaps the boldest attempt at a national moral reformation since President John F. Kennedy's patriotic challenge of 1961. It is the picture of a commander in chief who, during the China crisis, passed the first significant test of his judgment under pressure, balancing principle and pragmatism, toughness and deftness. It is, in short, the picture of a man of both great humility and great confidence, a leader who is chronically underestimated and consistently up to the task.

The second picture is one that Bush would not like: It would portray a party at its crest, artificially held together by the issues of the past and afraid even to attempt its own boldest ideas. It is the picture of a party with two rival cultures: the first a culture of religious believers, pro-life activists and home schoolers, who believe America has lost its moral bearings; the second a culture of oilmen and big businessmen, who believe America's greatness rises and falls with the stock market and that all virtue resides among the victors of the marketplace. It is the picture of a party that has abandoned school choice, hollowed out its faith-based initiative, appeased China and largely avoided the most contentious social issues. It is the picture of a party that acquired power by chance--losing the popular vote in the presidential election; staring straight in the face of a recession heading into 2002; and wrong in the eyes of the public on wedge issues like the environment and health care. All it has is tax cuts, the one thing that holds all the party's constituencies together, for now, but which most Americans believe will favor the wealthy, not them.

Interestingly enough, the nation's attitude toward Bush's 100 days in office mirrors this ambivalence. Sixty-three percent of Americans approve of Bush's performance, but three of five believe he cares more about protecting big business than he does about ordinary people. Sixty-eight percent believe he has a strong vision for the future, but only 47% say he understands "the problems of people like me." This sometimes satisfied, sometimes skeptical, sometimes worried public sees a president who has done a fine job, so far, but whose two major victories--on tax cuts and China--remain of ambiguous significance and whose greatest tests, of course, are still ahead.

For the moral conservatives, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. While he has not put their issues--abortion, bioethics, the entertainment industry, school choice--at the center of his agenda, Bush has held firm where he has been tested. He did not back down from his appointment of John Ashcroft for attorney general, despite the bitter challenge from many Democrats. He was quick to ban abortion funding overseas, and after some deliberation, he has made it clear that he will not support federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells. He has constantly reaffirmed his commitment to building a "culture of life" and maintained close ties behind the scenes with social conservative leaders and intellectuals. Where this will all lead, however, remains an open question. The first real test will come when Bush has to make his first appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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