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By Howard Gleckman Maybe the dark, soggy weather was an omen. With his inauguration now headed for the history books, George W. Bush has begun what is likely to be the most difficult peacetime Presidency in modern history.
He will try to govern with no popular mandate and a deeply divided Congress. Democrats won't forget anytime soon that he received a half-million votes less than the man he defeated, Al Gore. Bush will somehow have to find a balance between the demands of the Republican Right, which got him elected, and Democrats and independents, who are deeply skeptical of his agenda. And he is going to have to do it at a time when the economy is sagging.
Small wonder Bush talks so often about changing Washington and bringing people together. He has no choice. But the early indications are that talk will be the only thing that comes easy for the Bush Administration.
BLUNT WARNINGS. Just look at the early returns. His nominee for Attorney General, former Senator John Ashcroft, has come under withering fire from Democrats in Congress for his deeply conservative views on abortion, affirmative action, and gun control. And his nomination has set off a blistering debate over the intersection of religion and government. Conservatives are accusing liberals of being anti-Christian for opposing Ashcroft. Liberals are accusing conservatives of being intolerant ideologues for supporting him. This is hardly a new argument in Washington, but reprising it now is not what Bush needs to kick off his Presidency -- or his hoped-for new Era of Good Feeling.
The renewed debate over health care is yet more evidence of how big a gulf Bush must bridge. Remember, Bush campaigned for broad-based reform of Medicare and for a market-based prescription-drug benefit for low-income seniors. Fundamental changes in the system may already be off the table. And when the President sent word to Congress that he was going to ask for a modest block grant to help states fund a low-income drug program, he was shot down immediately.
At a Jan. 18 confirmation hearing for Bush's nominee to head the Health & Human Services Dept., both Democrats and Republicans on the powerful Senate Finance Committee bluntly warned that the new President's plan to provide benefits only to poor seniors is dead on arrival. Breaking the word as gently as possible, incoming Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) advised Bush to be "very flexible" on Medicare. Key Democrat John Breaux (D-La.) simply dismissed Bush's plan as "ill-advised and ill-conceived."
DISTINCT DISADVANTAGE. Not only is that message bad news for a health-care deal -- which the conventional wisdom predicted would be one of the easier proposals for Bush to pull off -- it's another stake in the heart of Bush's ambitious tax cut. Broad-based drug coverage could cost $40 billion a year. A big new drug benefit that more than offsets cost-savings in traditional Medicare means the money will have to come from the same pot of federal budget surplus money that Bush had hoped to tap for tax cuts.
On nominations, drugs, and taxes, Bush is already finding that Washington is an intricate puzzle, where shifting one piece throws a hundred others out of position. And absent the kind of broad support a new President usually enjoys, Bush is playing the game at a distinct disadvantage. It won't be much fun. But it will be interesting.
Correction: On Dec. 27, I wrote that the Bush Cabinet was so full of throwbacks to his father's Administration that he would have to get the Traveling Wilburys to perform at the inauguration (see BW Online, 12/27/00, "George W. Hits the Ground Backpedaling"). Was I wrong. In reality, Bush got Wayne Newton, two-fifths of the Fifth Dimension, and the Guy Lombardo Orchestra. This isn't a rerun of Bush I. It's the reincarnation of the Nixon Administration. Apologies to the Wilburys, wherever they are. Gleckman is a senior correspondent for Business Week based in Washington. Follow his Washington Watch columns, only on BW Online.