A Lame Duck Who's Surprisingly Presidential

He campaigned with all the class and polish of one of the Bowery Boys. But in his last days in office, George Bush has rediscovered noblesse oblige. Liberated by his defeat, Bush has launched a final flurry of activity that has, at long last, broken the paralysis that gripped much of his Administration. Bush has acted decisively in dispatching U.S. troops to Somalia, maneuvered deftly on Asia policy, played hardball on trade, and rebuffed some of the loonier demands of the gop's right. All this has long-time Bushies noting wistfully that if their man had governed with similar panache, he wouldn't be packing boxes today.

There's more to come as Bush winds up his term with one eye on his place in history. But, interestingly enough, the prime beneficiary of the late policy blitz may be Bill Clinton. Somalia is the kind of humanitarian intervention that liberals love. And by moving now, Bush has spared Clinton the need to dispatch U.S. troops abroad as one of his first acts in office.

That wasn't Bush's motivation. Instead, he was making clear that the U.S. remains the main force for policing the soon-to-be-renamed New World Order. Says top Bush aide Frederic V. Malek: "The President really believes there's no reason to be a superpower unless you are willing to do the right thing." In three valedictory addresses, the first on Dec. 15 at Texas a&m, Bush will argue for continued U.S. engagement in an unstable world.

NEW ACTIVISM. Bush is also sparing Clinton trouble on the trade front. The President will sign the North American Free Trade Agreement on Dec. 17. Some Hill Democrats hoped Bush would leave that chore to his successor. But inking the pact now makes it virtually impossible for Clinton to accede to congressional demands that he renegotiate the pact to strengthen labor and environmental protection. That leaves Clinton to do what he really hoped to do anyway, which is tinker around the edges of the deal.

Elsewhere on the trade front, Bush's new activism has also helped Clinton's cause. By forcing Europeans back to the bargaining table on agricultural issues with the threat of tough retaliation against France, the President revived chances for a global trade pact. Months of wrangling remain, but Clinton will be positioned to claim credit for an accord that will be mostly George Bush's doing.

Bush has been equally busy tidying up affairs in Asia. He may ease trade restrictions on Vietnam, clearing the way for U.S. business to begin overtures in a big new market. Clinton, whose draft record is a sore point, would have found it tough to make the first move on normalization. Bush has also responded to Taiwan's craving for U.S. attention by dispatching Trade Representative Carla A. Hills to Taipei. Her trip sent a hint to China that Washington's patience with the slow pace of political reform is limited. And it could help U.S. companies win more of Taiwan's $300 billion public works program.

On domestic matters, Bush seems to have returned to his moderate roots. He ordered new food-labeling guidelines, brushing aside objections from the meat industry. He has thrown swamp water on Dan Quayle's plan to weaken wetlands protections. Quayle's suggestion that Bush nullify the Iran-contra trial of former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger with a pardon met a similar fate.

Doing Bill Clinton a favor may have been the last thing on Bush's mind as he ties up the loose ends of his Presidency. But in polishing his own legacy with a final flurry of activity, Bush may just make it possible for Clinton to do what he really wants: maintain a single-minded focus on the economy.

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