By Richard S. Dunham
The Hundred Days. Ever since the days of John F. Kennedy's "Camelot" Administration, it has become a fixture in the unimaginative minds of the modern-day Washington press corps. Bill Clinton's first 100 days. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's first 100 days. So brace yourself: On Sunday, Apr. 29, George W. Bush will mark his 100th day in office.
But after all the front-page stories in the Sunday papers are thrown into the recycling bins, the real story will begin to unfold: It's the second 100 days. During the next three months, leading up to Congress' summer vacation, the direction of the Bush Presidency -- and perhaps its ultimate success or failure -- may well be decided. And that's why it's more important to look ahead than peek back at Bush's brief honeymoon and its aftermath.
The truth be told, there hasn't been a momentous "first 100 days" since Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the New Deal back in the depths of the Great Depression. Yes, Ronald Reagan was shot in his first 100 days, a jarring event that later helped galvanize public support around his landmark budget and tax cuts. But the country wasn't in a national crisis requiring immediate action.
POLITICS AS SPORTS.
Even so, "the first 100 days do not tell us all that much about Presidents," says Roosevelt biographer James MacGregor Burns, "because, typically, great crises do not arise in the first 100 days. We'll know about Bush only when he faces a great domestic or international crisis."
But in this era of 24/7 politics-as-sports coverage, the media Establishment always wants to keep score. The first 100 days represents the score after "the first period" of a new political era.
So let me save you the effort of reading all the coming Bush stories with one paragraph: Good first 100 days. Bush is pretty popular. He's sure to win a big tax cut, though not quite as big as he would like. Seems to keeps his promises. Passed his first foreign-policy test on China. Mangles the English language, but jokes about it. Has made liberals, greens, and feminists mad with his pro-business and pro-life policies. Most of all: He's not Bill Clinton.
That said, here are 10 tests Bush will face in the next 100 days. How he handles them could make or break his young Presidency.
The Education Endgame. Bush's top Texas priority was reforming schools. As President, he has worked with liberal Democrats Teddy Kennedy and George Miller to come up with a truly bipartisan plan to help underperforming, impoverished schools. But it'll take skill to close the deal. Some on the left complain that Bush's reforms are woefully underfunded. On the right, there's grave concern about his plans to test all public school students and his willingness to compromise on school vouchers. This is a big test of the new President's negotiating skills.
Trade Tussles. An unvarnished free-trader, Bush wants Congress to give him power to negotiate trade deals without legislative meddling. But he's not sure he has the votes to win so-called "trade promotion authority," long known as "fast track," without making significant concessions to unions and environmentalists. Problem is, serious concessions would anger supporters in the business community. Now that he has launched his free-trade offensive in Quebec, the trade issue will tell us a lot about how effective a leader Bush really is.
European Cynics. The President's poll numbers are quite respectable at home, but across the pond, many Europeans consider him a bellicose lightweight. An Apr. 18 Gallup Poll found that only 26% of Britons view Bush favorably, while 51% disapprove of him. The American leader has two opportunities in the next three months to change European perceptions: a trip to Brussels, home of NATO and the European Union, in June, and his first global economic summit a month later. By summertime, we may learn how tall this Texan stands on the international stage.
The Taxman Cometh. Thus far, Bush has fared well on his campaign pledge to cut taxes by $1.3 trillion. The House passed a $1.6 trillion cut, the Senate a $1.2 trillion package. But Bush raised the stakes by insisting on a cut of no less than $1.6 trillion. It'll take shrewd negotiating -- and some hardball politics -- to prevail. Does the new President have the necessary skills? We'll know soon enough.
Senatorial Discourtesy. No place in the U.S., except perhaps Hollywood, has a collection of overinflated egos to match the U.S. Senate. What's more, the 50-50 split in the chamber has made it very difficult for Bush to dictate the policy agenda. After three moderate Republicans defected over the size of the Bush tax cut, the President began needling recalcitrant senators. In an Apr. 16 speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he said they are proving to taxpayers that "if you send it [tax money], they will spend it." He argued that "even the Senate" should be able to live within a budget.
Senate Republican leaders already have promised to spend more than the President wants, and some veto fights may loom. "Sometimes, the hardest sell is within your own party," notes Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida.
Here's the rub: It's very dangerous to declare war on members of your own party. One GOP moderate, Senator James Jeffords of Vermont, responded with a veiled threat to Bush. He told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that it was a short walk across the aisle, presumably to the Democratic Party. The situation is volatile. Bush needs all the diplomatic skills he can muster to deal with the Senate. He can't pass his legislative agenda without it.
Middle East Muddle. During the campaign, candidate Bush chided President Clinton for his intense involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He promised to get involved only when asked by the parties. As President, Bush has learned that life is much more complicated. He has already reprimanded Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his incursions into Palestinian territory. And he snubbed Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat by making him the only regional leader not to receive an Oval Office invite.
Critics have argued that peace in the Middle East can't happen without aggressive American involvement. Will Bush invest time and political capital to force peace upon warring parties? His decision will shape his legacy, either way.
The China Syndrome. Bush won kudos for his handling of the diplomatic impasse following China's detention of a U.S. spy-plane crew. But he faces future challenges: an arms-sale deal with Taiwan, possible Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization, and a battle on Capitol Hill over extending normal trade relations status with China. A top Bush aide acknowledges that the bilateral relationship is "complex." It's also one of the new President's continuing challenges.
The Return of the Kremlinologists. Unlike the Clinton Administration, the Bush White House has stepped back from an active role in shaping a democratic, capitalist Russia. In fact, the new Administration has spoken precious little about Russia, except in response to an embarrassing spy case. But when Team Bush has spoken, its harsh language echoes the Cold War. And that scares some longtime international observers. "The risk here is that you let incidents drive your policy," says former House International Relations Committee Chair Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.). The White House is hoping Russia remains on the backburner.
Social Security Reform Slips Away. You haven't heard much from the White House on Social Security privatization, what with the stock market dip of early 2001. But White House strategists are working on Plan B: A commission to review reform options and make recommendations. One problem: The White House wants a blue-ribbon panel, but GOP Hill leaders want a commission headed by lawmakers that will craft realistic legislation in a hurry. Without Presidential leadership -- in a hurry -- Social Security reform will slip into Bush's second term. If there is a second term.
Patients, Patients, Patience. The White House is headed for a showdown on the so-called Patients' Bill of Rights. The sticking point: How much money should aggrieved patients be able to recover from HMOs that violate their newly created rights? The President and GOP Hill leaders want a strict cap to prevent the reform plan from becoming what Bush calls "a lawyer's right to bill." The White House wants to sign a Patients' Bill of Rights. With some smarts and a little political talent, Bush should be able to reach his goal.
Looking back at the Administration's first 100 days, Budget Director Mitch Daniels naturally hailed the progress made on tax cuts, spending priorities, and other issues. But, he added, "What we don't have is an outcome yet." That's what the second 100 days will provide. And that's why it's far more important than the first.
Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht