A Gentleman's "C" for W


By Richard S. Dunham During the Presidential transition, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked repeatedly about the President-elect's goals for his first 100 days in office. Time after time, Fleischer deflected the question, arguing that it's fairer to judge a President by his performance in the first 180 days -- or six months -- rather than the first 100 days.

It seemed like a good job of spin at the time. Fleischer was absolutely correct that the "100 days" benchmark is an artificial creation of the media, one that hasn't truly been important since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal blitzkrieg in 1933. Still, when the 100-day mark neared, Team Bush produced a made-for-TV series of events designed to mark the dramatic successes of the new President.

Surprisingly, after all the build-up by the White House staff, the 43rd President's first-180-days mark seems to have passed with little notice from either the spinmeisters in the White House or the Condit-crazed D.C. press pack. That's just as well for Bush. If there had been a spate of news stories, they would likely have focused on his declining popularity, his problems getting some of his top priorities enacted on Capitol Hill, and his clashes with European allies on issues ranging from trade to global warming to his missile-defense concept.

ONE MAN'S OPINION. In fact, Bush let the half-year mark pass without official notice. He spent the previously ballyhooed 180th day -- July 19 -- in London, touring Winston Churchill's World War II underground war rooms, lunching with Queen Elizabeth II, and visiting the country house of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. When Bush eventually addressed the matter of his 180-day record of achievement, however, he effusively praised himself. "I think we've had a pretty good six months, when you think about it," he said at the end of a July 26 Oval Office photo op. "I've signed a lot of legislation. Today, for example, I signed the legislation naming the education savings accounts after [former Georgia Senator] Paul Coverdell. That's a piece of legislation that had languished in the past. It's now law. I signed tax cuts. I signed some regulatory relief."

All patting-yourself-on-the-back aside, it would serve a useful purpose to take the Ari Challenge and assess the first 180 days of Bush II. Here is a more neutral, but still admittedly subjective, analysis of the Bush Presidency to date:

Legislative Accomplishments. The signature accomplishment of the Bush Presidency so far is passage of the biggest tax cut in two decades. Both its ultimate size and its impact on the federal budget remain in doubt. Already, it appears that the government is going to have to dip into Medicare funds to avoid the first deficit since 1996. But the tax cut is unquestionably a political triumph for the first-year President. Other than that, Bush has not enacted a single one of his top campaign priorities, though education reform is tantalizingly close to final approval. Most modern Presidents start out slowly. Bush started with a bang.

Overall Grade: B

Cabinet & Staff. There are some obvious stars and some surprising duds, but the overall performance of the Cabinet is above average. The best: Secretary of State Colin Powell, who commands international respect, Vice-President Dick Cheney, a no-nonsense problem-solver, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and National Economic Adviser Larry Lindsey, who both are smart and savvy.

The busts: Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld is taking heat from the right and left alike, and Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Whitman has been involved in one controversial decision after another, including several embarrassing reversals from the White House. On the affirmative-action front, the Administration staff is racially diverse and there are more Latinos than ever before in a White House.

Overall Grade: B+

Public Opinion. There's a big disconnect between the American people and the Pundit Elite. The Beltway Gang writes endlessly about the President's mangled English, and the late-night comics delight in their "Bush Is a Dolt" routines. But the President scores decent job-performance ratings in the public polls. Most national surveys have Bush hovering in the mid-50s -- nearly 10 percentage points below his honeymoon highs, but similar to the struggling early Presidency of Bill Clinton. In a bit of good news for the White House, a Democratic poll even found that most Americans consider Bush smart.

Overall Grade: B-

World Opinion. Bush has a long way to go to earn international respect as a world leader. While he has established cordial personal relations with some European allies, Bush is privately considered a lightweight with unilateralist tendencies by many of the same leaders. A Bush aide dismisses those gripes as the usual "hazing" that a new American leader goes through. One bright spot: the American President and Russian President Vladimir Putin have created a mutual admiration society. If the relationship continues to blossom in upcoming summit meetings, it could enhance the reputation of each leader in the eyes of skeptical outsiders.

Overall Grade: C-

Congressional Relations. Candidate Bush promised to be a different kind of politician as President. As President, Bush has played the hard-nosed partisan and conservative ideologue (on issues other than education). It worked moderately well until Republicans lost control of the Senate. Since then, it has been a formula that has caused gridlock and griping.

With South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle at the helm in the Senate, Bush has been floundering to get anything done on Capitol Hill. And he even seems to be losing control of the Republican House -- mainly because he has shown such little willingness to compromise. How bad are Bush's relations with the Hill? "A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier, there's no question about it," he recently joked. Congressional leaders aren't laughing. Hey, Mr. President, "compromise" is not a dirty word. It's the way to get things done in Washington.

Overall Grade: D

Leadership The President hasn't been very effective at using his bully pulpit to build public support for his policies, from his "faith-based initiative" to his version of the managed-care Patients' Bill of Rights. Bush has shown little unscripted interaction with average Americans and has avoided the traditional Oval Office address on high-priority issues. Polls show that voters aren't concerned about Bush's leadership skills. Indeed, 59% agreed that he is "a strong leader," according to a June 11-13 survey by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. But this is one area in which I agree with the Pundit Elite: Bush, who is so charming in private, could do much better in public.

Overall Grade: C

Final Grade. At the Yale University commencement this spring, the President joked about being a C student. That's probably about the grade he deserves for his first 180 days. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online


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