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Sure-Handed Start

In his first seven days, President Bush has won friends on education, tax-cutting and other fronts.

January 28, 2001

What kind of first week has it been for President Bush? One he has good reason to be pleased with. His education reform plan, a cornerstone of his legislative ambitions, was unveiled in outline and generally was well received by Congress. With some compromises, it seems headed for early enactment. His Cabinet choices, with the exception of the ultraconservative John Ashcroft, his nominee for attorney general, were treated well by the Senate. Even Ashcroft's eventual confirmation is all but certain, probably with the support of a fairly large number of Democrats.

One of Bush's first acts was to halt U.S. funding for overseas family planning services that offer or advise abortions. Among Bill Clinton's first acts as president was to reinstate such funding, blocked by his two Republican predecessors. Having reversed that, Bush moved quickly to establish rapport with Congress, not just the Republican leadership but Democrats whose cooperation he knows he must have. Many came away from those meetings praising Bush's political skills and flattered by his attentiveness to their views.

Near the end of the week Bush got a big lift from Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, who told Congress he has changed his long-held view and now believes that some phased-in tax cuts may be warranted. Greenspan emphasized that his first priority is still to use revenue surpluses to pay down the $3.6-trillion national debt. But as projections of surpluses grow ever larger, Greenspan said, tax cuts become more affordable. His remarks were typically conditional, tying tax cuts to specific targets for debt reduction and shoring up Social Security. And any tax legislation should have a self-destruct mechanism, so that if the surpluses prove to be an illusion--as is likely--the government won't have to borrow money to make up for revenues lost to tax cuts.

Bush was smart enough not to interpret Greenspan's comments as endorsing his $1.6-trillion-and-growing tax cut plan, though some of his aides were less reticent. In any case, Greenspan's carefully hedged approval of tax cuts gives this other cornerstone of Bush's legislative priorities greater credibility. The question has become not so much if there will be tax cuts but where they will be targeted and how much they will cost.

So far, Bush has hit few bumps in getting his administration organized. His White House appears to be functioning efficiently. The contrast with the indecisiveness, disorganization and general unreadiness to govern that marked Clinton's first months in office in 1993 is inescapable. To be sure, seven days in January do not an administration define. Ahead, inevitably, lie stumbles, strained relations with Congress, bad decisions. But for now, give the new president credit for a sure-handed beginning.

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