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"Accidental President" No More?

By Richard S. Dunham The public's view of George W. Bush has been so colored by the aftermath of September 11 that we now think of little else when assessing his first year in office. Indeed, the caricature of Bush as a lightweight, accidental President -- a puppet whose strings are manipulated by veterans of his dad's White House -- has been virtually dispelled. In its place are a series of images: the President's stirring address to the Joint Session of Congress, his emotional interaction with rescue workers at Ground Zero, his steely resolve to topple the Taliban and exterminate al Qaeda.

Now, let's imagine for just a moment that Osama bin Laden's terrorist plot had never been carried out. Other than the war on terrorism and the drive for homeland security, what kind of a year has President Bush had? The answer: surprisingly successful.

Whether you voted for him or not -- whether you liked what he was doing or not -- you have to give him high marks for getting things done. From the day the Supreme Court decided that the Texan was going to be the 43rd President, Bush has pursued the same priorities he outlined in his campaign. Confounding pundits and congressional Democrats alike, Bush got nearly everything he asked for in a tax cut. And he got it much more quickly than Washington's fiscal mavens expected. That was his No. 1 campaign promise.

BACK ON THE FAST TRACK? He also is on the verge of signing into law his No. 2 campaign pledge: an overhaul of national education policy that emphasizes accountability but gives local districts billions of dollars to help improve school quality. To win an overwhelming bipartisan majority, Bush had to make concessions -- giving up on the unpopular private-school voucher idea he had floated on the campaign trail.

Partisans on both sides of the education debate were unsatisfied. But in the end, with the help of liberal leaders like Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Representative George Miller (D-Calif.), Bush won a big political and policy victory that should improve American education for a generation.

He also eked out a 215-214 House victory Dec. 6 on the most important trade legislation in eight years -- a proposal to restore Presidential authority to negotiate trade deals on a "fast track," that is, the President agrees to the deal and Congress accepts or rejects it without extensive involvement. Most trade experts declared that Trade Promotion Authority, as it is now called, was going to be buried by protectionists in the House. They were wrong, much to the delight of American business. The Senate Finance Committee quickly approved a similar measure on an 18-3 vote, and final approval should come early in the new year.

Another top priority, a health-care patients' bill of rights, is far along in the legislative process. While the President suffered a defeat in the Senate -- where a plan pushed by maverick Arizona Republican John McCain and Kennedy was too pro-lawyer for Bush's pro-industry taste -- the House gave the President a big win. Responding to serious White House arm-twisting, the House narrowly approved a Bush-backed compromise, and a final deal is probably just months away. That is, unless Senate Democratic leaders decide to be obstructionists in a congressional election year.

BUSH DEMOCRATS. Is everything coming up roses? Hardly. The budget meltdown of 2001 may delay Bush's final two priorities, a drug benefit for seniors and systemic Social Security reform. The basic problem: With $1.3 trillion in tax cuts promised over the next decade, there simply isn't enough money for a new entitlement or for the transition to a partially privatized retirement system.

Voters will make the final decisions on the Bush Presidency. And so far, Americans seem to like what they see. Even in heavily Democratic states such as New York and California, he wins approval from more than 80% of the electorate. Among swing voters, Bush has a 20-point edge over congressional Democrats on getting the economy growing again, a 27-point lead in preparing all Americans for the New Economy, a 23-point advantage in maintaining fiscal discipline, and a 10-point margin on improving education (a traditional Democratic issue), according to surveys conducted by Democratic pollster Mark Penn.

On historically Republican issues such as crime and national defense, he has restored the huge advantages that had vanished during the peace-and-prosperity years of President Clinton. Bush has a 76% to 16% edge on Democrats on strengthening the military, and a 68% to 20% advantage on fighting terrorism, according to Penn's polls. "Some of the old perceptions of the parties are starting to come back," frets Al From, CEO of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

PARTISAN COMBAT. What's most interesting in these numbers is that the nation is in a recession, and yet people don't seem to hold Bush accountable. But looking ahead, his biggest challenge may lie in dealing with the economic mess at home. While Americans today are willing to blame others for the recession (from Osama bin Laden to Alan Greenspan to Bill Clinton), Bush will face mounting criticism if economic indicators don't turn around soon.

Voters historically are sensitive to rising unemployment. If the jobless rate hits 7% by next summer, it could spell bad news for congressional Republicans and GOP governors in the 2002 midterm elections.

In the meantime, Bush and White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels must tackle a federal budget that has gone from a $281 billion surplus to red ink in less than a year. That will mean a new set of domestic priorities for 2002, including privatization of more federal government services and targeted program cuts. It will also mean continuing combat with congressional Democrats, who will accuse Bush of cutting programs for the middle class to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy. Again, Bush's popularity could fall if he handles these issues clumsily.

The White House is prepared for the debate. When the Supreme Court issued its decisive order on Dec. 13, 2000, not even the strongest Bush supporter could have imagined a President with an 88% approval rating one year later. That's twice the job rating of Bill Clinton almost one year into his Presidency, after his rocky start in 1993. It seems inconceivable that Bush can maintain this record level of support. Still, even if it slips, the President will have a solid base for pursuing his agenda. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

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