Now that George Herbert Walker Bush has been in office almost 100 days, it seems appropriate to issue an early report card on his presidential performance. There are many indications of the type of president he will be, and some of them are surprising.
Most presidents can be predicted to some extent based on their campaigns. Since Bush ran a highly aggressive, even negative campaign, with a heavy emphasis on television advertising, we suspected his presidency would bear the earmarks.Instead, he opened an entirely different chapter on Jan. 20, essentially removing his campaign operatives, choosing a new team of players, and trying to crystalize his "kinder, gentler nation" ideal. He has avoided the cynical use of television, so familiar to the Reagan years, and does not try to orchestrate the evening news.
Let me begin with the worrisome aspects of the Bush presidency: First, he has been surprisingly slow in filling top governmental positions, especially considering his assertion that he was "ready to govern from day one" and considering his many years of experience in the federal system.
Second, he has practiced a scatter-shot technique of administration, being slow to delegate, seeming to act as his own chief of staff in spite of the strong presence of John Sununu. The president shows signs of not yet being ready to trust Sununu, being hesitant to let go, fearing that Sununu will "blow it."
In the meantime, Bush spreads himself too thin, does too many things personally, reminiscent of Jimmy Carter overseeing sign-ups for the White House tennis courts. The presidency is much too complex for that and has been since the days of Franklin Roosevelt.
Third, Bush made a major mistake when he nominated John Tower for Secretary of Defense knowing Congress would be deeply troubled by it. Then he insisted on sticking by Tower to the bitter end. How much better it would have been if the president had withdrawn the nomination before it had eroded confidence in his administration and caused Tower to become a national laughing stock.
On the other hand, George Bush has projected some encouraging signs: First, he has displayed, beginning with the inaugural, a deft personal style that immediately endeared him to the public. His sense of humor is evident, and he reached out to people in many different ways, trying to be approachable and visible.
Second, he has displayed a determination to meet the press often in direct, free-wheeling exchanges. He is not easily intimidated nor afraid of hard questions (as Reagan was), encourages follow-up questions, and displays a good depth of knowledge. He already personally knows most of the White House press corps, and he respects them as professionals who are not out to get him.
Third, he is leading with a hands-on, high-energy style, and relishes long days with the White House lights burning into the evening. No 9 to 5 days for Bush, who wants Americans to know he is on the job. His energy in the presidency is reminiscent of John F. Kennedy. Like Kennedy, Bush exudes a love for the job and has enormous confidence in his own ability to do it.
Fourth, most of Bush's top administration choices have been experienced, competent, and respected people who SHOULD serve him well. He has not chosen people who represent extreme views on either side of the political spectrum.
The selection of Dick Cheney for Defense was a brilliant stroke after the incredibly bad choice of Tower. The enormous respect in which Cheney is held may lift Bush's chances of bouncing back from the embarrassing Tower episode.
Fifth, Bush offered sincere support for higher ethical standards in government, but then became vulnerable when some of his people were criticized for questionable ethics, including his own ethics chief, C. Boyden Gray.
Sixth, Bush has begun his term talking in positives, not the negatives of the 1988 campaign. His knowledge of foreign affairs and his experience with foreign leaders has made him appear presidential.
It is a mixed record, but there are several more pluses than minuses. If George Bush can achieve a meaningful blend of his loose administrative style and his desire to remain personal and approachable, he will probably prevail. What he needs most is a clear theme for his presidency. As with past presidents, that will be the historic measure of his "first 100 days."