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Despite Claims, Bush Wavers on Decisiveness

September 02, 2004|Janet Hook and Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — By the time President Bush mounts the podium tonight to accept his party's renomination, few viewers will have missed the Republican National Convention's central message: He is a strong, decisive leader who, unlike Democratic opponent John F. Kerry, steers a steady course through shifting tides of public opinion.

"Some call it stubbornness; I call it principled leadership," former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said this week. "President Bush has the courage of his convictions."

But a review of Bush's first-term record paints a more complex portrait: While he has been bold and unflinching on some issues -- especially Iraq and tax policy -- on a host of other fronts he has been uncertain, on the sidelines or inconsistent.

While he has advocated overhauling Social Security -- a goal that may be impossible to achieve without presidential leadership -- he has been vague about exactly how he wants to do it. Although for months the administration expressed doubt about the need for creating a Department of Homeland Security, he now counts it as among his signal accomplishments.

He fought a bill revising the campaign finance system, but signed it rather than using his veto power.

Indeed, he has not yet vetoed any measure -- even big spending bills loathed by his conservative supporters. If he keeps up that track record, Bush would be the first president never to wield a veto since James Garfield, who was shot to death after less than a year in office.

"He is much more uneven as a leader than we're hearing this week," said Paul C. Light, a professor in the School of Public Service at New York University. "There are some issues that appear to trigger a determined reaction and others where he doesn't know where he stands or will go with the flow."

By focusing so heavily on the president's decisiveness, the Bush campaign is making his leadership style key to the case for his reelection. That focus dovetails with the GOP attack on Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, for changing positions on matters such as the war in Iraq, the No Child Left Behind Act education bill and trade policy.

"All I'm asking you to do is tell your friends and neighbors: Be careful of somebody whose position shifts in the wind," Bush said this week at a rally in West Virginia.

Kerry supporters have tried to challenge Bush's claim to being a decisive leader by pointing out inconsistencies -- such as his recent statement that, contrary to his earlier assertions, the war on terrorism could not be won. (Bush on Tuesday declared the war winnable, saying of his earlier comment: "I probably needed to be a little more articulate.")

Kerry backers also argue that, however decisive Bush may be, he is leading in the wrong direction.

"Sticking with the wrong policy is not the way to govern," said Phil Singer, a Kerry campaign spokesman. "This isn't decisiveness. This is a failed policy."

Bush campaign officials say that some of Bush's shifting stances have been minor adjustments to account for new conditions and information. "The president has adapted his positions to the circumstances," one senior campaign official said.

Still, Bush's 2002 decision to impose steel tariffs strongly contrasted with the tough language he used during the 2000 presidential campaign to denounce such trade protectionism.

"I will work to end tariffs and break down barriers everywhere entirely, so that the whole world trades in freedom," he said in 1999. But in office, and faced with the economies of politically crucial states battered by foreign steel production, Bush slapped tariffs on imports.

He cast the decision as a response to unfair trading practices by foreign nations, which had caused layoffs and bankruptcies at U.S. steel companies.

"When there are unfair trade practices, this president will act," said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. But many free-market conservatives saw it as an act of political opportunism to gain favor with voters in swing states.

Bush lifted the tariffs last December, saying they had "achieved their purpose" of giving the U.S. steel industry time to restructure.

In some instances, Bush has quickly staked out a position and then retreated in the face of strong public sentiment. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, senior administration officials spoke out against creating a separate Cabinet-level department to coordinate domestic security.

"There does not need to be a Cabinet-level office of homeland security," Ari Fleischer, then-White House press secretary, said a month after the Sept. 11 attacks. Seven months after that comment, Tom Ridge, then serving as the president's homeland security advisor, said he would "probably recommend" that Bush veto a bill creating a new department.

But after congressional momentum behind the bill became almost unstoppable, Bush announced in a nationally televised address that he would support creation of a Department of Homeland Security. Ridge ultimately was named to head it.

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